“Did you register to vote?” a female student greeted me with a big smile as I walked through the center of Sproul Hall on campus.
“No,” I quickly responded as I smiled back.
“Would you like to register?” she said. “It takes only about several minutes. I can help you.”
“Sorry, I’m late to class,” I half-lied.
She probably thought that I was lazy, apathetic or ignorant. But that’s the farthest from the truth. I wish I could tell her that I have wanted to vote ever since I turned 18. And I wish I could have told her the reason I cannot vote — because I am undocumented.
Ever since I moved to this country from South Korea at the age of 11, I grew up just like many other American students. I attended local public schools, learned English, joined sports teams and was involved in many different student organizations.
I eventually made my way to UC Berkeley after transferring from Laney College. In college, I studied political science and became increasingly involved in student government — first as the student president at Laney and later as a student senator at Cal.
In school, there were days when I spent endless hours at the library, studying, researching and learning about politics by reading a variety of magazines, online articles and newspapers. I also had political discussions with my friends and instructors in class as well as in student organization meetings and even during lunches and dinners. Sometimes, I have had intense debates during discussions, but I have always appreciated these moments because they helped me develop a broader understanding of the political system.
I have even applied the political knowledge that I learned in school to the real world and took direct action to make changes.
For example, when I was an ASUC senator, I incorporated my knowledge and skills that I learned from school to help manage and balance the ASUC’s $1.7 million budget, advocate for diverse issues related to health care, affordable education and academic services along with 19 other elected student senators. As a senator, I had the privileged opportunity to vote and exercise my right on campus to make my voice heard. It was truly an honor.
Though I am assimilated into American culture, our society does not allow me to have a voice in the political system. Outside of the university, I am restricted from running for any higher-level political office with some exceptions, such as commissions, the school board and a few others.
Even after I graduate from the top public university with a degree in political science, I cannot participate in the voting process. I am just one person, but there are an estimated 2.1 million DREAM Act-eligible students who have earned or are pursuing a college degree in the United States but cannot exercise the right to vote. Additionally, an estimated 11.5 million undocumented people in the country as of January 2011 are barred from voting.
Some may argue that we do not deserve to vote because we are undocumented. This may sound logically reasonable, but it goes far beyond obtaining U.S. citizenship. Whether documented or undocumented, there were times when African Americans, women and other underrepresented communities did not have the right to vote.
Even today, many people are having a difficult time voting because of restrictive laws to purposely prevent them from exercising the right to vote. For example, Tennessee’s voter ID law would restrict people from participating in the voting process because significant proportions of underrepresented communities do not possess government-issued photo identification. This means minorities and low-income people could be further disenfranchised by this law. Clearly, our current voting process is flawed. Thus, policymakers and elected officials should encourage as many people in this country to participate in the voting process as they can instead of punishing them by creating discriminatory laws against underrepresented communities.
The November presidential election is just around the corner. Though I am unable to vote, I encourage others to vote in this critical election. Voting is a basic right, a civic duty and a responsibility as citizens in this country. We should not take it for granted.
You should vote because there are millions of undocumented immigrants like me who want to vote but are unable to do so because of their immigration status.
You should vote because people fought and died for the right to vote in this country.
You should vote because there are many countries where people are still fighting and sacrificing their lives to have the right to vote.
You should vote because your voice matters. If you do not vote, interest groups and lobbyists will take advantage and influence the policymaking process to benefit their own interests.
You should vote because you can hold elected officials accountable and keep them the responsible representatives they were elected to be.
Your vote matters, your vote counts and your vote can change a person’s life.
Ju Hong is a UC Berkeley student and former ASUC senator.
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