Here we go again.
Last week the Niagara County Clerk, Mr. Joseph Jastrzemski, sent an official letter to the President of the United States in which he warned of a “conspiracy” against our democracy, one that he says, “will forever poison the election process in New York State.”
These are significant words from a public official. At first glance you might think that Mr. Jastrzemski is calling attention to the Mueller investigation and its sober findings that the Russian government actively intervened in our 2016 elections and plans to do the same again in 2020. But that is not the threat our county clerk is referring to. His warning is that undocumented immigrants are preparing to flood the ballot box.
Let’s take a closer look at the conspiracy that Mr. Jastrzemski sees.
Last month New York state lawmakers passed a bill that will allow undocumented immigrants in the state to go to the DMV and apply for a driver’s license. They will have to pass the same written exam and behind-the-wheel test as everyone else. I understand that there are some people who see this alone as a threat to the nation. The fact is that undocumented immigrants have jobs (like picking the food we eat) and like everyone else they need to get to work. Many do this in cars and would like to drive legally. In fact, many of the rest of us actually prefer to share the road with people who have proven to the DMV that they know how to drive safely.
However, immigrants and their driving habits are not the concern that led Mr. Jastrzemski to send an official letter to the President warning of “a threat to our national security.” His concern is that those immigrants are going to use those licenses to register to vote and inundate our elections with illegal ballots.
Now, let’s take a look at reality.
First, think about this as a practical matter for a moment. More than half the people who are actually citizens here can’t even be bothered to vote. But Mr. Jastrzemski thinks that undocumented immigrants are going to risk deportation to cast a ballot. Seriously?
The life of an undocumented immigrant is one lived in the constant shadow of fear. Every interaction with a public official — from the police to that nice lady at the Lockport DMV welcome window — is a potential trapdoor to getting kicked out of the United States, even if you have lived here for decades. These are people who go out of their way to avoid contact with government officials, not to falsify voter registrations that could destroy their lives.
Second, despite all the recent bluster coming from our county officials about an imminent undocumented immigrant threat, neither Mr. Jastrzemski nor anyone else there can actually tell us how many undocumented immigrants live in Niagara County. The news reporters at this paper have been asking them for those statistics for weeks and no one at the county hall has an answer, dire warnings aside.
Despite all this, our county clerk may still find an eager ear in the White House. The president himself still claims that his three-million vote loss in the 2016 popular vote was due to a wave of clandestine voting by illegal immigrants. That claim, along with Mr. Jastrzemski’s fearful warnings, have no more evidence to back them than the belief that the 1969 Moon landing was staged or that Elvis is still alive. Our county clerk has simply decided to jump aboard the conspiracy bandwagon.
Mr. Jastrzemski sent his letter to the White House on the same day that a heart-breaking photograph sped its way across the world, the one that showed the tiny body of a 23-month-old Salvadoran girl still clinging to her father after they drowned together in the Rio Grande trying to reach America. He sent his letter to the White House the same week that we learned the conditions of the migrant toddlers ripped by our government from the arms of their parents. In our name the government has left babies untended, lying on concrete floors in their own excrement and barely fed. I was just in Mexico a few weeks ago working with UNICEF on this crisis in our detention camps and heard the same there as well.
Mr. Jastrzemski, it is the inhumanity of conditions like these that needs our attention now, not conspiracy fantasies about undocumented migrants lining up to vote. The job of a public official is to solve public problems and to weave us together as a community, not to spin false tales and seek to drive us apart. Yes, I fully realize that our local politicians think that these kind of hyperventilated conspiracy theories advance their careers. But we need to call them out on it for what it is — pure political posturing — and we need to do so every single time.
Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a licensed driver.