Hidalgo County continues to comb through voter list

Laura Brunson suspects her name was included in a list of more than 3,000 potential non-citizens registered to vote in Hidalgo County, but there’s no telling yet whether her citizenship will be questioned by the county elections office as it continues to comb through the names the Texas Secretary of State’s office sent last month.

Brunson, a U.S. citizen and a former Rio Grande Valley news personality, sees her life mirrored in the news stories she’s seen and read since Jan. 25, when the secretary of state’s office announced it had used records from the Texas Department of Public Safety to flag 95,000 potential noncitizens registered to vote in Texas, with about 58,000 of them casting at least one vote since 1996.

Like others profiled in news stories across the state, Brunson was not a U.S. citizen when she first obtained a driver’s license at the age of 20 in 2003. But that doesn’t mean she voted illegally, she said.

“I was always a permanent resident,” she said of her immigration status before becoming a naturalized citizen.

And as a legal resident living under Texas law, she was authorized to apply for a state driver’s license and obtain a personal identification card without being a citizen.

Brunson, however, never cast a ballot until 2007, shortly after undergoing the rigorous naturalization process.

“I knew and understood that I couldn’t vote,” she said — and that dissuaded her from becoming involved in politics. “I didn’t feel like I could express myself. I was always kind of detached. I felt I shouldn’t have an opinion if I couldn’t vote.”

But that changed after a chance encounter with Leonel Perez, an immigration attorney who was scheduled to be featured in a news segment at the local Telemundo TV station where Brunson worked.

A production assistant at the time, Brunson was in charge of moving cameras and assisting with microphones when a conversation with Perez eventually veered to her immigration status. And after a brief review of her history, Perez agreed to take on her case, for a fee, of course.

“It took a lot of work to get those papers,” she said about her naturalization certificate and the ability to vote. “It’s one of the proudest moments of my life, and now it feels like it’s been tarnished a bit.

“I’m not supposed to feel like a criminal.”

Still, it’s unclear whether the Hidalgo County elections office will ask the expecting mother to verify her citizenship. The elections office is still cautiously reviewing the list and has held off from mailing letters of examination to those it wishes to verify.

Once a letter is mailed out, the registered voter has 30 days to respond by physically going into the office and showing proof of citizenship via one of three documents: a birth certificate, a naturalization certificate or a passport. If they don’t respond within the allotted time, their registration will be canceled.

After their trip to the elections office, the registered voters will have to drive to their nearest Texas Department of Public Safety office to show proof of citizenship in order to be removed from the state’s list, Hidalgo County Elections Administrator Yvonne Ramon said last week.

Ramon asked the secretary of state’s office if she could help speed up by the process for the voters by submitting a copy of their proof of citizenship to DPS, but was told the registered voter needed to go in person.

“I’ve never had my driver’s license suspended, I pay my taxes and I expect to be able to vote,” Brunson said. “Now, that right can be taken away if I miss a letter in the mail.”

The former Univision and Fox news reporter also worries about others who may not be physically able to verify their status, including the elderly and the disabled.

“Maybe I’ll get the letter, maybe I won’t. I’m not sure,” Brunson said. “But I think about those people because they’re’ the ones that are going to be left out.”

Ramon, however, said that even if the secretary of state’s office removes someone from the voter rolls, they can easily be added again.

“No one is canceled forever. We’re able to reinstate,” she said last week. “But they all are going to have to show then that they are U.S. citizens because they have been flagged by DPS and the secretary of state.”

Brunson, whose maiden name is Cavazos, is also worried that her new documentation won’t match her information on file after adopting her husband’s last name. And to complicate matters just a bit more, she was also briefly registered to vote in Travis County, while she lived in Austin for more than two years.

“I may get two letters,” she said with an exasperated laugh. “That doesn’t take away that I’m a U.S. citizen, and that I’m allowed to vote. So my civil rights aren’t being taken into account, and I’m being treated differently because I was a permanent resident at one point in my life.”

When asked about the extra verification steps the county is taking before sending out the letters, she replied sharply, “Shouldn’t they have done that first? Now the local government is going to have to do the work that the state didn’t’ do.

“If you cancel a person that shouldn’t be canceled because they didn’t show up, who’s going to take responsibility for that?”