• Giugi Carminati

Anecdotes of a Quasi-Immigrant: What's in an ID?

I found the voting site using my Key Map. I drove up, parked, and proudly walked in ready to cast my first vote, ever. I turned 18 two months before I moved to the United States. At the border, the agent looked at my passport as I entered the country and said, “Welcome Home.” Something like that, I thought, never having actually lived here. So, there I am in early November 2001 ready to exercise my right as a US Citizen. I am so excited. I’ve been protesting the Iraq War. I’m “politically active.” I’m definitely a Democrat. I’m ready. Giddiness understates how I felt. But you already know this is not going to go the way I thought, right?

I don’t actually remember, scene by scene, what happened. I do remember the lady at the voting location being less than understanding or charitable. The exchange went something like this,

“You’re not registered.”

“But I have ID. I’m a US citizen. I can vote,” I said showing her my US Passport.

“You’re not registered. Next.” No explanation, no follow up: you’re out.

I ended up in my car, devastated and humiliated, crying. As a kid born in Europe, in my infinite naivete, I thought that I could show proof of citizenship and vote. Nah-ah. I was such an innocent young one. (In contrast, when I registered as an Italian living in the United States through the Consulate, I was automatically sent ballots to vote by mail for every election. I did not have to “register to vote.”). Little did I know that this “ID situation” was going to repeat itself, several times.

As a college student, Sam’s Club was our salvo. We would buy food in bulk and live on it for a long while. We also found cheap clothing and really affordable rotisserie chickens. (At the time, if you went to the Sam’s Club near our apartment right at closing, sometimes someone would just hand you rotisserie chicken for free or for $5.00. I had many meals like that). But getting a Sam’s Club membership was more complicated than you’d think. The first time, I marched in with my Italian passport. The person at the counter looked at me like I was crazy and told me my Italian passport was not a “real ID.” I tried to argue, obviously to no avail. I then tried with my US Passport. Same result, “It’s not a real ID.” “But I can literally get into COUNTRIES with this thing!” “Well, you can’t get into here.” Sigh. So, we asked, “What ID can we use to get a membership?” And she looks at me incredulous, “A Driver’s license.” I was baffled: what if people don’t drive? She shrugged; not her problem.

I know that for quite a while I tried to use my US Passport as a form of ID and it just wouldn’t fly. I couldn’t use it on campus, I couldn’t use it off campus. Even more infuriating, I would get the response, “We need a Government-issued ID.” And I would exasperatedly exclaim, “This IS a government-issued ID!” No can do.

The thing is we did not have Driver’s Licenses for a bit. Ale got his first. He used his Uruguayan license to skip the written test and just took the practical test. He passed on the first try. I came to the US with no driver’s license, so I had to take the written test (twice) and the practical test (twice). In order to get to the test location, we had to borrow someone’s car and ask them to drive us there. Indeed, you’re supposed to bring your own car to the testing location. As an outsider, the fallacies of this system were apparent: I can’t have a car without a driver’s license, but I have to have a car to get a driver’s license. So how do people show up? Someone else lends them a car? That’s one heck of an assumption—that someone knows someone who will not only drive them there, but let them borrow a car to take a test, and wait the 2-3 hours those visits inevitably take.

Most people reading this probably don’t think about that at all but I had to. And it is also why I understand exactly how the Voter ID laws target certain populations. In the affluent white universe, not having a Driver’s License was not just an anomaly; it was outright insane. But as newly arrived folks, we had to figure out how to get Driver’s Licenses which is a process. In places without adequate public transportation it’s outright byzantine. It just seemed, at the time, that this whole “Driver’s License as an ID” puritanism was set up for a very specific type of family in a very particular social class. See where I’m going? Sure, I know that having a US Passport actually would have been a recognized type of ID when voting (as long as I’d registered) and that having that places me with just under 50% of the US population 42%). http://www.ntacourier.com But that still leaves 60% of the population requiring another form of ID.

Finally, when people think integration into a country they think of language, culture, and food. However, integration is also about being able to function in very basic ways and having the resilience to navigate completely new systems which are banal for people already-living there. It’s also learning a system that was just built on completely different assumptions—and sometimes on discriminatory ones at that.

(I would add that I also not only figured out how to get registered to vote--which again I got to do automatically when I got a driver's license, as though this is a talismanic device--but I also learned how to register others to vote, which gave me tremendous satisfaction. We had booths and went to low income neighborhoods, where cars were few and far between, registering folks).


© 2020 by Giugi Carminati