“My Citizenship Is Not Legal, but Cultural”: The View from an Ineligible Voter

“When we arrived in the United States in 2006, we did not anticipate seeing 14 years go by and still being unable to claim the security and belonging of citizenship.”

"My Citizenship Is Not Legal, but Cultural": The View from an Ineligible Voter
March For Our Lives—a student-led rally for gun control in the U.S.— in New York City, 2018. (mathiaswasik / Flickr)

A few years ago, I attended the March for Our Lives in New York City as a high school student who had just turned 17. By New Jersey law, my age cohort could now register to vote. 

As my friend and I joined the swell of people on 72nd Street, we noticed a voter registration booth parked nearby, decorated with orange flags and bright buttons. The booth was staffed by a swarm of enthusiastic activists working to draw protestors to the polls. 

“Come, register to vote!” hollered a young woman by the booth, looking at me and my friend as she continued with the common activist refrain, “Take your part in our democracy!” 

My friend explained that she had already registered at the New Jersey DMV when she got her license. The young woman nodded with enthusiasm, and then turned to me expectantly.

“Um, I’m not eligible to vote,” I said apologetically.

“Oh,” she responded, taken aback, “Well, I guess thanks for coming then.” 

What stood out to me was the immediate drop in timbre of her voice, which had deflated from eager to disinterested within a matter of seconds. I clearly did not belong at the polls, but for just an instant, I almost felt as if I did not belong at the protest either. It was a small moment that fell behind as we pushed forward with the crowd, but it lingered in the back of my mind.

Since then, I began to take note whenever questions of voter eligibility and civic belonging came up, often in the same context. I increasingly noticed how the word “citizen” and “resident” were used interchangeably in class—though one of those terms explicitly excluded those like myself.

I was frequently asked if I identified more with my American citizenship or with my foreign heritage, and I had to explain my position in between those two poles.

I realized then that we live in a binary world: An individual in this nation is either a fully christened citizen of the United States, or a foreigner existing completely outside of American customs and norms. As I navigated this dual reality in which I seemed to have no place, I hid my lack of citizenship, not mentioning my immigration status unless directly asked. 

I was eventually forced to face my ineligibility openly. In the sociology class I took my senior year of high school, my teacher handed out voter registration forms as she encouraged us to defy the lackluster showing that defined my generation at the polls. It was a worthy endeavor, but I soon realized that I couldn’t even make it past the second question on the registration form: “Are you a U.S. Citizen?” The question went on to mock me with its parenthetical instruction, “If No, DO NOT complete this form.”


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Legally, that parenthetical had every right to taunt me—I am not, by law, a citizen. I came to the United States from the United Kingdom at the age of five, but I was born in the eastern Indian coast town of Visakhapatnam. The seal of my native country still adorns my passport, though I was carried away from the tropical subcontinent to the castled shores of Wales only three months after I was born.

When we arrived in the United States in 2006, we did not anticipate seeing 14 years go by and still being unable to claim the security and belonging of citizenship. 

However, while my legal documents officially relegate me to the foreign spectre of a “resident alien,” I still see myself as a citizen. As I came of age within this country, I worked to cultivate my English. I versed myself in the American classics I never listened to growing up, from The Beatles to Elton John to Kate Bush.

And now as a sophomore at university, I study American society and politics as I look to enter public service in the United States. My citizenship is not legal, but cultural. 

"My Citizenship Is Not Legal, but Cultural": The View from an Ineligible Voter
“My citizenship is not legal, but cultural,” writes Swathi Kella, Harvard ’23. (Harvard South Asian Association / Facebook)

As we approach an election that many see as a referendum on democracy itself, it is essential that we do not forget about our cultural citizens. The vote is crucial, but civic participation does not stop there.

We also need to conceive of participation in this election cycle as an act that extends beyond the ballot—this means being cognizant of the reality that not everyone can cast a vote, but assuring them that they are just as important in securing a democracy of the governed. 

We can no longer define political citizenship simply by the ability of a person to exercise the right to vote and run for office. We must expand our definition of who may take part in this country’s democracy, and in doing so bring a new cohort of long overlooked constituents into the fold of our political processes.

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About

Swathi Kella is a sophomore at Harvard University concentrating in social studies. She is also the senior U.S. editor of the Harvard Political Review and a research assistant with the Harvard Implicit Social Cognition Lab. Follow Swathi on Twitter, @swathikella.