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Immigrants need to be cautious about voting

The United States is experiencing a lot of internal conflict over immigration issues right now -- including the idea that there may be large numbers of immigrants voting illegally and swaying important elections.

So far, there's been no evidence of large-scale voter fraud by immigrants -- but there has been growing scrutiny by the Justice Department on the isolated cases that have been discovered. The government is increasingly choosing to prosecute those immigrants who mistakenly vote -- even when there is evidence that they did not intentionally break the law.

Immigrants, now more than ever, need to be aware of their limitations when it comes to voter registration and voting.

Which immigrants can vote?

You have to be a citizen of the United States to register to vote or vote in any state or federal election. Those who become "naturalized citizens" enjoy the same right to vote as anyone born in this country. However, someone who is a lawful permanent resident holding a green card does not.

This is often a source of confusion to immigrants who are permanent residents. The confusion may be further aggravated by the fact that some major cities with large immigrant populations allow green card holders to vote in local elections.

Other immigrants mistakenly rely on the voter registration process to protect them. They assume -- wrongly -- that they won't be asked to register or permitted to vote if they aren't legally allowed.

What are the potential penalties for illegal voters?

Immigrants who illegally register to vote or vote face severe consequences. Falsely claiming citizenship on a voter registration form alone, independent of the act of voting illegally, is punishable with heavy fines, prison and deportation. The punishment for voting illegally is similar.

It's important to understand that federal prosecutors don't have to show that the immigrant intentionally committed voter fraud to win a conviction. Deportation is highly probable simply because lying in order to obtain the benefit of a vote is considered a "crime of moral turpitude."

Given the increased attention that federal prosecutors are showing toward immigrants and voting fraud, it's important to know where you stand -- and strictly observe the rules. If you are charged with a federal offense due to voter fraud, it's important to seek legal counsel quickly.

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