An immigrant. A PTA president. A graduate student. A debate coach. A single mother. A new US citizen.
These are just a few of the many hats that Maria Palacios wears. Now, she’d like to add another: a member of the Georgia State House.
Initially, Palacios qualified to be a Democratic candidate, making her the only one running for the seat representing Gainesville, where she has lived for 24 years.
Then things got complicated. After Palacios’ candidacy was challenged by a voter in her district, according to her attorney, an administrative law judge recommended she be disqualified from the race.
This led Secretary of State Brian Kemp — who’s also a Republican candidate for governor — to ultimately bar her from running, pointing to the Georgia constitution, which says a candidate has to be a “citizen of the state” — not just a resident — for at least two years.
That would first require Palacios also have been a US citizen for at least two years, according to Kemp’s decision, which argued that US citizenship is a precursor to becoming a state citizen.
And since Palacios only became a US citizen last June, she has only been a “citizen” of Georgia for one year, ultimately disqualifying her from running.
“I was a little surprised,” Palacios said of receiving the news. “It just didn’t make sense with my understanding of our democracy and my understanding of my rights as a US citizen.”
On Wednesday, Palacios was dealt another blow when a superior court judge upheld Kemp’s decision.
But Palacios’ attorney, Sean J. Young of the ACLU of Georgia, plans to appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, claiming the decisions rely on the outdated language of the state’s constitution.
Young also feels that excluding Palacios from the ballot runs contrary to American ideals.
“I can’t speculate as to his (Kemp’s) motives,” Young said, “but certainly, disqualifying a newly naturalized United States citizen from running for office is consistent with the idea of making new immigrants unwelcome in our democracy.”
In a statement, Kemp’s press secretary Candice Broce said the case hinges on legal requirements to run for office in the state.
“Ms. Palacios did not meet those requirements when she qualified for office,” Broce said, adding that the “decision is another victory for enforcing the law as it is written.”
‘I’ve always been an American’
Palacios was born in Mexico and her parents came to the US legally on migrant farmer visas, she told CNN. When they settled in Gainesville, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, Palacios was just 5 years old.
She has never left. Her mother still lives there, and her three children — a 6-year-old and twin toddlers — have grown up there, attending the same public school system their mother did.
Palacios received her green card in September 2009 and became a naturalized US citizen in June 2017, fulfilling a long-held dream. It was a lengthy and costly process for her family, she said, but it was worth it.
“That was an investment I wanted to make in myself, and for my children,” she said, “to provide more stability no matter the political climate.”
During her naturalization ceremony, Palacios said she was “overwhelmed with happiness” to finally be recognized as a full citizen in the country she grew up in and where her children were born.
“To me, I’ve always been an American.”
These days, Palacios keeps busy. By day she’s a policy analyst for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. By night, she’s the PTA president of her oldest daughter’s school. She also coaches debate in Spanish at the University of North Georgia, where she’s working towards getting her master’s degree in public administration.
When local community leaders and friends asked Palacios to run for office, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to represent her community.
She said the Hispanic community in Gainesville, which has exploded, is underrepresented in the Georgia General Assembly. As of 2016, an estimated 42% of the city was Hispanic or Latino, according to the US Census Bureau.
“When you haven’t lived through some of these social factors, and when you’re not really close to the issues, you’re not going to come up with solutions to those problems,” she said.
“I thought this would be a great platform to be able to serve my community even further.”
But the ongoing legal issues surrounding her candidacy threaten to prevent Palacios from doing just that.
The legal argument
“The legal question in this case is whether the Georgia Constitution requires candidates to be a US citizen at the time of election, or for at least two years prior to the election,” said Young, Palacios’ attorney.
He says that Kemp’s decision, and Wednesday’s ruling by a judge, “doesn’t make sense.”
“Citizen of a state,” Young explains, “is an old phrase that isn’t really used anymore, but traditionally it meant someone is living (in the state).” And Palacios, he pointed out, “has lived here forever.”
In legal filings, Young points out the phrase dates back to at least 1877, and cites a number of cases that appear to suggest the use of the phrase “citizen of a state” was synonymous with “resident,” “inhabitant,” or “domicile.”
Because the filing deadline has passed, Republican incumbent Matt Dubnik will only face an independent candidate in the November election if Palacios isn’t allowed on the ballot.
Young also believes Georgia voters should be confronting Kemp about the decision.
Throughout the race for governor, Kemp has drawn attention for his controversial campaign ads. In one, he tells voters he’s going to “round up criminal illegals” in his pickup truck ” and take them home myself.”
‘It’s a beautiful opportunity’
Some of Palacios’ supporters with the ACLU have suggested she’s exactly the kind of person who should run for office, regardless of how long she has been a citizen.
She worked hard, pursued the American dream, and “jumped through all the hoops” necessary to gain her citizenship, Young pointed out.
“For people to exclude United States citizens from our democracy because they haven’t been a United States citizen long enough is offensive to who we are as a country,” he said.
When her candidacy was first challenged, Palacios had no idea what to do and became “really stressed out about it,” she said.
But now? “I completely feel empowered,” she told CNN.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity to be able to show how the naturalization process works,” she said of her candidacy, “and how there’s people out there like myself who are as American if not more than those who you run into in the street.”