[co-author: Colleen Anderson]
With the upcoming presidential election, ongoing state and local elections, and recent events sparking civil unrest, the rate of social and political activism is high. While everyone in the United States is free to participate in social and political activism, non-citizens should be aware of the restrictions placed on foreign nationals regarding election-related activities.
Who does this impact?
The Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) prohibits any foreign national from directly or indirectly contributing money, or any other thing of value, to a political campaign for federal, state, and local elections, or to any political party. The term “foreign national” includes the following groups:
- foreign citizens (not including dual citizens of the United States)
- immigrants who are not lawfully admitted for permanent residence
- foreign governments
- foreign political parties
- foreign corporations
- foreign associations
- foreign partnerships
Lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green card holders) are not considered foreign nationals and are not prohibited from making political contributions. These restrictions apply to all foreign nationals regardless of whether they reside in the U.S. or abroad. Politicians are also prohibited from accepting or soliciting campaign donations from foreign nationals.
Don’t: Donate to political campaigns or register to vote
Even a small personal donation of $10 to a political campaign could come with severe immigration consequences. Because politicians are also on the hook for violating the law, they often require individuals to certify that they are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident when donating or contributing to their campaign. Registering to vote in federal, state, or local elections also requires a certification of U.S. citizenship. For foreign nationals unaware of these restrictions, a simple check of a box could result in a violation of federal law. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a false claim to U.S. citizenship can lead to serious immigration consequences, even if the claim was unintentional.
Do: Read the fine print
Carefully read the fine print before you sign or submit any sort of document, petition, or donation to ensure you are not inadvertently making a claim to U.S. citizenship or lawful permanent residence. It is also important to be careful when purchasing political memorabilia, such as buttons or t-shirts, as those funds could go directly toward that political candidate’s campaign and qualify as a donation. Remember, even indirect contributions are prohibited.
How to get involved
Although foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to political campaigns, the FECA does not prohibit foreign nationals from volunteering personal services to a federal candidate or federal political committee if the foreign national is not compensated by anyone in any way. Additionally, foreign nationals may lawfully engage in political activity that is not connected with any election to political office at the federal, state, or local levels. Given that the “volunteer” exemption is vague and can be complicated, you should consult a competent immigration attorney before engaging in volunteer activity.
If you have any questions about how your immigration status may impact your ability to participate in the U.S. political process, you should contact an immigration attorney.