Julieta Garibay vividly remembers the sense of triumph she felt when she became a U.S. citizen last April—and again when she registered to vote in time for last November’s midterm election. But her pride turned to dread when she learned last week that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley had sent a stern advisory to county elections administrators. Whitley flagged as many as 95,000 Texans whom he said may be non-citizens who had illegally registered to vote.
Garibay, 38, a resident of Austin, reached out to Travis County officials and asked whether her name was on the list. They confirmed that it was. They warned that she had 30 days to show proof of her citizenship or she’d be purged from voter rolls. And that’s when her dread turned to anger.
“I was shocked,” she said. And then she tweeted: “This is me registering to VOTE bc IT IS MY RIGHT & MY DUTY.”
— Julieta Garibay (@dreamelder) January 30, 2019
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Last weekend, Garibay became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), alleging that state officials unconstitutionally singled her and thousands of others out to be removed from voter rolls because they are foreign born. Garibay was born in Mexico in 1981 and moved to Texas with her family at age 12, as an undocumented minor. She earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas and works as Texas director for United We Dream, an immigrant rights group.
Thanks to her energetic social media documentation of her journey from noncitizen to naturalized citizen to registered voter, and her forceful interviews with multiple news outlets, Garibay has emerged as the face of what has become a growing embarrassment for Governor Greg Abbott and his secretary of state, Whitley—who was appointed less than a month ago and has not yet been confirmed by the Texas Senate.
Abbott defended Whitley’s effort, calling it “a work in process” and vowing that “they will get it right.”
Democrats in the legislature say they want a full explanation. “I think that the secretary of state has to provide real answers on exactly how it was that his office put out such wrong information and gave counties across the state horrible guidance only to back track later,” said Representative Chris Turner of Fort Worth, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “He’s got to answer as well exactly how this was coordinated with the attorney general’s office, who sent out a press release immediately, and other entities that were talking about it immediately. If he can’t provide those answers to the legislature and to the public very quickly then I don’t think he’s the best person to hold the office.”
Lawsuits similar to Garibay’s have been filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Joly Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas, and the Texas NAACP. All of the complaints allege that state officials violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, by using false data to impose added requirements for naturalized citizens to vote. Garibay’s suit names Whitley, Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Galveston County Tax Assessor Collector Cheryl E. Johnson as defendants. Galveston officials are named because they moved quickly to demand that people on the list provide proof of citizenship.
“We’re suing @TXsecofstate, @GovAbbott & @KenPaxton for conspiring to purge naturalized citizens from the voter rolls,” MALDEF tweeted. “We will fight to stop ‘aggressive efforts to target legitimate voters and to deter or suppress their participation’”
@TXsecofstate, @KenPaxtonTX & @GregAbbott_TX,
I’ve joined other warriors with @MALDEF bc we will not be bullied or intimidated from exercising our right to vote as a US Citizen. pic.twitter.com/oJZSv6hnWd
— Julieta Garibay (@dreamelder) February 4, 2019
In the lawsuit, Garibay and six other plaintiffs are asking state officials to admit they conspired against naturalized citizen voters, and to retract the list of suspect voters and the challenge letters sent to them. In addition it asks Whitley to refrain from flagging new citizens from further voter purges.
County voting officials have reported to lawmakers that in the days following the state’s January 25 election advisory, workers from the secretary of state’s office began calling counties and pointing out errors on the list of suspicious voters that they had provided. Representative Rafael Anchia, a Dallas Democrat and chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, expressed suspicion that these communications came via telephone and not email. “There’s no paper trail,” he said. The list was compiled after state officials compared voting records with driver’s license records. They appear to have assumed if a Texan was not a U.S. citizens when he or she first obtained a driver’s licenses, that person was not a citizen when he or she voted — even decades later.
Despite the errors, the secretary of state’s office “has neither withdrawn the list of suspect voters nor advised the counties to refrain from acting on the flawed information” even though officials there were aware that the names of thousands of naturalized U.S. citizens were present on the list, according to Garibay’s lawsuit.
Newly naturalized citizens in Texas are not required to update the Department of Public Safety (DPS) when their citizenship status changes. When Garibay was naturalized, she never went back to DPS and told them of her change of status. In her lawsuit, Garibay says she was harmed by her inclusion in the secretary of state’s list of “Possible Non U.S. Citizens” and by having been accused of voting illegally.
“I am a firm believer that you should never vote if you’re not a citizen,” she said. But she doesn’t believe that the secretary of state’s actions stemmed from a desire to fairly enforce the voting laws. She thinks it was a politically motivated attempt to intimidate newly naturalized voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. “For folks receiving these letters and calls,” she says, “ask yourself, if voting wasn’t this important why would Trump and Ken Paxton go to this length to suppress your vote?” Her advice: “Know your rights and continue to vote.”