In all, 20 immigrants — two still in pajamas — were rounded up over several days, many of them handcuffed and shackled, and charged with voting illegally in the 2016 presidential election. The sweep across eastern North Carolina was one of the most aggressive voting-fraud crackdowns by a Trump-appointed prosecutor — and also a deliberate choice that demonstrates where the administration’s priorities stand.
At the time of the arrests, an organized ballot-tampering effort that state officials had repeatedly warned about was allegedly gearing up in the same part of North Carolina. The operation burst into public view after Election Day in November when the state elections board, citing irregularities in the mail-in vote, refused to certify the results of the 9th Congressional District race. That seat remains unfilled while state officials investigate.
The decision by U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon Jr. to focus his office’s resources on the prosecution of noncitizens rather than the ballot-tampering allegations in Bladen County comes amid a broad push by President Trump and other Republicans to portray illegal voting as a widespread phenomenon that threatens the integrity of American elections.
After the August arrests, Higdon issued subpoenas for millions of records of foreign-born voters from state and local agencies — a request North Carolina officials have said will consume an enormous amount of time and costs millions of dollars. In Texas last week, state officials announced that more than 50,000 noncitizens may have voted in state elections over a 22-year period, though they subsequently revised those numbers considerably.
A Washington Post examination of the effort in North Carolina found a complicated portrait of who is voting illegally and why — and exposed systemic problems that allowed noncitizens to register and cast ballots, in some cases without knowing they were breaking the law.
All but one of those arrested are legal residents of the United States, including a man from Italy who had passed the citizenship test but had not been sworn in. Four others said they had been urged to vote by campaign workers or election volunteers and did not realize they were breaking the law.
So far, the voting-fraud prosecutions have netted minimal penalties: The five defendants who have been sentenced received minimal fines, misdemeanor convictions and no jail time.
Still, those convicted said the experience sent a powerful message.
“I want to tell my people: Don’t vote,” Solano-Rodriguez said after he pleaded guilty in federal court in Raleigh on Jan. 17 to a misdemeanor charge. He was fined $100.
A legal resident of the United States who lives in Raleigh with his U.S.-born wife and three children and runs a successful landscaping business, he added: “They tell you, ‘You can vote.’ But don’t do it.”
Immigrant advocates said the federal investigation in North Carolina has wasted tax dollars and targeted legal residents for offenses that are minor but could result in their deportation. One green-card holder from Mexico who was prosecuted for illegal voting by Higdon’s office in an earlier case has been held at a detention center since his August sentencing.
Higdon has declined repeated requests for comment. But in a statement announcing that sentencing, he said: “The right to vote is a precious privilege available only to citizens of the United States. When a noncitizen votes in a federal election it serves to dilute and devalue the vote of American citizens and places the decision-making authority of the American electorate in the hands of those who have no right to make those choices.”
Higdon spent nearly 24 years as a career federal prosecutor, serving at one point on the team that unsuccessfully prosecuted former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards for campaign finance crimes. In 2015, he joined a law firm in Raleigh.
Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.), who served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District before running for Congress in 2012, described Higdon as a “consummate, professional career prosecutor.”
“He’s incredibly competent,” Holding said in an interview.
Following Trump’s election, Higdon discussed the U.S. attorney job with staff members for North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, as well as with Tillis directly, according to written testimony Higdon submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Tillis and Burr subsequently submitted his name for consideration, Higdon wrote.
Neither senator’s office responded to requests for comment.
Trump nominated Higdon in August 2017. By that time, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions had made clear one of his top priorities for the Justice Department: to prosecute immigration crimes.
“I ask that you increase your efforts in this area,” Sessions wrote in an April 2017 memo to all federal prosecutors.
At his October 2017 swearing-in ceremony, Higdon echoed Sessions, emphasizing the risk posed by undocumented immigrants.
“Some are here committing crimes among us now,” he warned in his speech.
As U.S. attorney, Higdon has been regarded as a by-the-book prosecutor — but also someone guided by what Washington wanted, according to lawyers who have worked with his office.
“He would always say by name, ‘President Trump and Attorney General Sessions have directed that we do X, Y and Z, and we’re going to do that,’ ” said a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District who requested anonymity to describe internal discussions. “And he would note that during meetings — how things are going to change in the office.”
By the time Higdon assumed his post, the U.S. attorney’s office had obtained information indicating that some noncitizens had voted in the previous election.
A state audit released in April 2017, conducted by the State Board of Elections after Trump and other Republicans claimed that as many as 3 million ineligible voters had cast ballots the previous year, detailed a list of irregularities in the North Carolina vote — some more serious than others.
The audit found that out of more than 4.5 million total ballots cast in 2016, more than 400 suspected felons and 41 noncitizens had voted improperly.
The audit also found 34 cases in which voters flagged as noncitizens by local election officials were actually eligible voters.
State officials also found two cases of voter impersonation and 24 cases of double-voting. And the audit flagged “irregularities affecting absentee by-mail voting in Bladen County.”
It was one of several warnings that federal officials had received about ballot tampering in the 9th District, as The Post has previously reported.
Former associates and voters told The Post that a GOP operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless paid workers in both 2016 and 2018 to collect mail-in ballots from voters, then turned in some of the ballots and possibly discarded others. It is a felony under both North Carolina and federal law to tamper with another voter’s ballot.
An attorney for Dowless has denied that he broke any laws, adding that “current ongoing investigations will prove the same.”
Frustrated state investigators said they saw little interest from Higdon’s office in pursuing the case.
“His office is extremely interested in noncitizens who vote and made a huge deal out of that and subpoenaed all kinds of documents, but he has no interest in this other matter? It’s cherry-picking,” said Marshall Tutor, an investigator for the state elections board who retired in March.
The elections board has declined to certify the results in the 9th District while it continues to investigate the alleged irregularities. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes in the unofficial count. Harris had hired Dowless to run his absentee-ballot program.
A hearing on the investigation is expected this month.
'It was a nightmare'
The audit of the 2016 vote in North Carolina did lead to one known federal investigation, according to court records: the Eastern District’s probe into voting by noncitizens.
Most of the 20 arrested last August by federal agents were immigrants from Latin American or Caribbean countries, but noncitizens from Japan, South Korea, Germany, Poland, the Philippines, Italy and Nigeria were also charged in the operation.
The Post interviewed multiple defendants, as well as defense attorneys representing those charged, and attended four sentencing hearings.
“It was a nightmare that I will never get over,” George recalled of the experience.
George, who had been feeding her animals when she was arrested, was allowed to change her clothes before she was taken away, but only with a federal agent watching her, she said in an interview.
All her neighbors saw the commotion, George, 70, recalled. She sat in the courthouse in Wilmington for the better part of the day without food or water. When her initial appearance finally came in the late afternoon, a magistrate postponed the proceedings for two weeks so the court could find a Korean interpreter.
She was charged with voting in federal elections in 2008, 2010 and 2016. She recalled that she voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
A housekeeper who met her American husband 20 years ago at the hospital where they both worked, George said she was encouraged to register to vote in 2008 by a member of her church.
Public defender Sherri Alspaugh said George did not know she was breaking the law. When George presented her residency card, driver’s license and Social Security card to register, the person processing her application accepted it, Alspaugh said during a court hearing last month.
“So they see a green card and they say, ‘That’s fine, you can register’?” U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle asked Alspaugh.
“Yes, sir,” Alspaugh replied.
“Because they don’t know what they’re doing!” the judge said.
George pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of “voting while alien.” Boyle fined her $100.
Fourteen of the defendants have required interpreters at multiple hearings, court records show. On Jan. 17, a Korean interpreter drove to Raleigh from Northern Virginia for George’s third and final court appearance. Another defendant, Nigerian native Elizabeth Amachaghi, needed an interpreter in her native language, Ibo, to be flown to North Carolina from the West Coast, her attorney said. Interpreters in Japanese, Haitian Creole, Tagalog and Spanish have also been called in for court appearances, records show.
One of the first to be sentenced was Italian immigrant Alessandro Cannizzaro, who has lived legally in the Raleigh area since 2000. Cannizzaro, who is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children, applied for citizenship in 2003. He passed the test but was told he had to come back to take the oath because the room was too full, according to a transcript of his October sentencing hearing.
“I called and called to check on it, and they said I had to wait,” Cannizzaro said at the hearing last fall, according to a transcript. “I never received any notification.”
When his family went to vote in the 2016 presidential election, “I joined them to vote,” he said. “I never checked the status . . . so I’m here today to take full responsibility.”
He pleaded guilty to voting while alien. Boyle fined him $200.
Four more sentencings came before Boyle in his Raleigh courtroom over two days in mid-January, including that of Solano-Rodriguez — who never signed a voter-registration application at all, public defender James Todd said.
His client was at work the day someone from a voter-registration drive showed up at his home to register a number of people attending a party there, Todd said. Solano-Rodriguez doesn’t know how a form was filled out on his behalf, his lawyer added.
When Solano-Rodriguez received a card from the Wake County Board of Elections indicating he was registered, he assumed he was supposed to vote, Todd said.
At one point during George’s sentencing hearing, Boyle chastised Assistant U.S. Attorney Sebastian Kielmanovich, who was representing Higdon’s office in court that day. “Maybe as much attention as is focused on illegal voting should be focused on management of elections so they are not encouraging people to vote who are not eligible to vote,” the judge said.
“Absolutely,” Kielmanovich responded.
Kielmanovich declined to comment to The Post.
Most of the remaining defendants, many of whom could not be reached for comment, have pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and are awaiting sentencing.
Two remaining defendants face felonies. One, an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic, has pleaded guilty to assuming the identity of a legal resident, obtaining a passport and voting. The other, a native of Mexico, was charged with applying for citizenship after having voted improperly in a federal election.
A rare practice
Numerous studies indicate that illegal voting is rare, making the recent prosecutions by Higdon’s office unusual. Before those cases, only 40 noncitizens had been convicted of voting illegally since 1992, including two in North Carolina — one in 2003 and another in 2018, according to the conservative Heritage Foundation, which tracks voting fraud.
David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney in New Mexico under President George W. Bush, said the North Carolina number is “huge” when compared with historical patterns. Iglesias established a voter-fraud task force when he was a federal prosecutor, but he said he did not end up prosecuting anyone.
“These cases are hard,” said Iglesias, now a professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. “They are not serious cases in the bigger scheme of things. They’re rare.”
However, other high-profile convictions of noncitizen voters are popping up elsewhere — driven in part, immigration advocates say, by Trump’s rhetoric.
In Texas last year, a jury sentenced Rosa Ortega, a permanent resident originally from Mexico, to eight years for voting illegally in state elections in 2012 and 2014 — including for Ken Paxton, the Republican attorney general who prosecuted her case. She is set to be deported after serving her time.
The emphasis in North Carolina on voting by immigrants instead of the alleged ballot-
tampering operation in the 9th District has drawn criticism from congressional Democrats.
At a Senate confirmation hearing last month for attorney general nominee William P. Barr, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), described Higdon’s actions as “a needle in the haystack effort to prosecute voting by noncitizens.”
She later told The Post that prosecutors should have been “looking at the fraud that was right in front of their faces,” referring to the alleged irregularities in the 9th District.
Barr responded in the hearing that, if confirmed, he would examine the merits of the investigation.
Some conservatives have also urged a more evenhanded approach.
Jay DeLancy, who leads the North Carolina-based Voter Integrity Project and advocates for stricter laws, such as voter ID requirements, said he supports prosecution of intentional voter misconduct, and he applauded Higdon for bringing the cases.
But DeLancy also said the North Carolina prosecutions don’t get at the real problem — what he described as lax voter registration procedures that make it too easy for ineligible voters to unintentionally break the law.
“They are setting up a lot of noncitizens for failure,” DeLancy said. “These are sympathetic cases.”
The focus on noncitizen voting in North Carolina did not end with the 20 charges that Higdon’s office filed in August.
About a week after the arrests, the Eastern District issued far-reaching subpoenas seeking more than 15 million voting records from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the State Board of Elections and 44 county election boards within Higdon’s jurisdiction in eastern North Carolina.
Working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the subpoenas targeted all foreign-born North Carolinians who have tried to register to vote since 2010.
State elections officials called it a vast and burdensome demand that would cost state and local governments millions of dollars — in addition to potentially chilling registration and participation among eligible voters. The state is fighting the subpoenas in court.
“Compiling records would have burdened state and county elections administration — commandeering staff-time for weeks,” said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the State Board of Elections.
Meanwhile, those prosecuted for noncitizen voting in the state are now at risk of being deported, even if they are here legally, immigration attorneys said.
Among them is Roberto Hernandez-Cuarenta, a 57-year-old landscaper from Mexico who has lived in the United States legally since 1992. Charged in 2017, before Higdon took office, he pleaded no contest in August to two misdemeanor charges of illegal voting, two weeks before the 20 other voter-fraud arrests.
His sentencing triggered deportation proceedings, and he has been held in an ICE detention center in Georgia since, according to his attorneys.
Andrew McCoppin, Hernandez-Cuarenta’s defense lawyer, said his client filled out a registration application at the state’s motor vehicle department and was told when he went to the polls that he was registered to vote.
Hernandez-Cuarenta also spent six months in county jail in 2009 and 2010 on misdemeanor charges of assault and resisting an officer, public records show.
The detention center where he is being kept is roughly 600 miles from his wife of about 30 years, who is a U.S. citizen, said his immigration lawyer, Marty Rosenbluth. A preliminary hearing on his residency status is scheduled for Feb. 18.
McCoppin believes his client’s legal status may have expired since he has been in custody.
“It’s unfortunate that the government is expending resources on prosecuting long-term legal residents who didn’t realize they couldn’t vote and were voting because they felt pride in the U.S.,” McCoppin said. “Deporting them would be such a disproportionate penalty for a minor offense.”
Reinhard and Crites reported from Washington. Seung Min Kim in Washington contributed to this report.