Voter fraud has been the rallying cry for Republicans who have been aiming for stricter voter ID laws. While voter fraud represents only a miniscule portion of ballots cast, the consequences can be severe, particularly if you're not a citizen.
Henry Alberto Araya stands with his wife Maria in the common area of his apartment in Winston-Salem. They've lived in the United States for 10 years after leaving their home in Costa Rica. Araya says he's always been involved in politics. So when he was approached by a volunteer in 2016 to register to vote, he was interested. He couldn't speak much English but told them he wasn't a citizen.
"They insisted and asked me if I had a Social Security card and a license, which I said 'yes' to since I do have a Social Security card and license from North Carolina," explained Araya. "After I said this they told me they could register me and fill my ballot themselves. And so I agreed."
Araya didn't get the name of the person who filled his ballot and put his trust in the knowledge of the volunteer. He signed and dated the document. A few months later, while drinking coffee in a grocery store, a different volunteer approached him about voting.
"Some people around where I was drinking coffee asked me, in Spanish, if I voted. I said no. So they said, 'OK, let's go vote, did you register?' and I said yes. When I got to the voting site, my name and license number were already on the system, so I assumed everything was OK. So I voted."
A year later, Araya received a call from the police that he was being charged for voter fraud.
Under immigration law, registering to vote or actually voting is considered a false claim to citizenship, which makes somebody permanently inadmissible to the United States.
"That was partly my mistake, but is also a system's error," Araya says. "How are they registering people who are not allowed to vote? What I'm saying here is that there's a problem with the system, a problem with the system and a problem with the ballot."
Immigration lawyer Helen Parsonage has taken several cases of voter fraud and says the law is “draconian,” since there's no way to get out of it. She explains that it doesn't matter how long you've been here. Doesn't matter if you're married to a U.S. citizen. It doesn't matter how many U.S. citizen children you have. There is no waiver.
It wasn't always this way. In 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security updated its policy on voter fraud to add that even if done without intent, in most cases, there would be no exceptions.
"This was under the prior administration," explains Parsonage. "They decided that they were going to take away the innocent and unknowing defense and make it an absolute, an absolute bar. So when I say it's draconian, it is very severe, the consequences are astronomical and ruin people's lives."
The narrative that undocumented immigrants are the driving force behind voter fraud in the state, or country, has been pushed aggressively for many years. In fact, a 2016 post election audit report shows only .01 percent of voter fraud cases were found in nearly 4.8 million ballots cast in North Carolina, and only 41 are non-citizens.
Parsonage says that "out of maybe two, three dozen individuals who have found themselves in this situation — most of whom didn't actually vote, but registered — only one person has said, 'Yes, I knew I wasn't supposed to do this.' ...All the others voted or registered to vote based on being advised that they could by somebody that they thought knew what they were talking about, either a poll worker or a voter registration."
She assures that in terms of active voter fraud, non-citizen voting isn't it.
Araya's wife, Maria Seas Mora says this time has been very difficult. They came to this country to work and sustain their family. And now they rely on her income alone. Her visa was sponsored through her job and was supposed to extend to her husband and children.
"One of our goals was to grow as a family, give our children a better education, to both our youngest kids, and to also give my husband the opportunity of U.S. documentation since he automatically gets that through the program," she says.
Araya is no longer eligible for the green card, he isn't able to work, and can't renew his documents, which are soon set to expire. In the meantime, they wait, hopeful that immigration officials will open a case against them. It could be the last chance for them to fight the charge and stay where they are.
This story was produced by a partnership between WFDD and La Noticia. You can read this story in Spanish at La Noticia.
Eileen Rodriguez is a reporter for both WFDD and La Noticia through Report for America, where she covers COVID-19's impact in the Latino Communities.
Periodista de La Noticia y 88.5 WFDD, Eileen Rodríguez reporta el impacto de COVID-19 en la comunidad Latina en Carolina del Norte. Rodríguez es miembro del cuerpo de periodistas de Report for America 2021-2022