Democracy for All?: The Case for Restoring Immigrant Voting in the United States
Democracy for All?:
The Case for Restoring Immigrant Voting in the United States
Ron Hayduk, Professor of Political Science
City University of New York (CUNY)
Voting is reserved for citizens, right? Not exactly. It is not widely known that immigrants, or noncitizens, currently vote in local elections in Chicago and Maryland. Moreover, campaigns to expand the franchise to noncitizens have been launched in at least a dozen other jurisdictions from coast to coast during the past few decades, including New York, Massachusetts, Washington D.C, California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, and Texas. Some of these campaigns would provide voting rights only to the documented, while other campaigns would extend voting rights to all noncitizens regardless of status. Some measures have been submitted to voters as a ballot proposition for approval (or rejection) while other measures have been passed (or defeated) by elected representatives as local laws.
These contemporary practices have their roots in another little-known fact: for most of the country’s history — from the founding until the 1920s — noncitizens voted in forty states and federal territories in local, state, and even federal elections. Moreover, noncitizens were permitted to – and did – hold public office such as alderman, coroner, and school board member. For most of America’s history and in the vast majority of the United States, voting by noncitizens was the norm not the exception. In short, voting by noncitizens is as American as apple pie and is older than our national pastime (baseball).
The U.S. is hardly alone. Globally, forty five countries on nearly every continent permit voting by noncitizens, with most countries passing such laws during the past three decades. These policies reflect the impact of massive demographic shifts and the spread of democratic ideas. Noncitizens pay taxes, own businesses and homes, send their children to public schools, and can be drafted or serve in the military, yet proposals to grant them voting rights are often met with great resistance. But in a country where “no taxation without representation” was once a rallying cry for revolution, such a proposition is not, after all, so outlandish.
This essay examines the politics and practices of immigrant voting in the U.S., chronicling the rise and fall — and re-emergence — of immigrant voting. In addition, this essay looks at the arguments for and against noncitizen voting, and its impact and on policy and American political development.
Immigrants, or noncitizens, are as varied as the hundreds of countries they come from, but they all have one thing in common: they are without formal political voice. Today, more than 30 million people in every walk of life—one in ten – are immigrants who are not U.S. citizens: teachers, students, firefighters, police officers, shopkeepers, nurses, doctors, sports players, movie stars, musicians, construction workers, gardeners, nannies, scientists, workers of every kind and neighbors who live in every state, city, suburb, and nearly every town in America. Like citizens, noncitizen immigrants work in every sector of the economy, own businesses, pay taxes, raise their families, make countless social and cultural contributions, are subject to all the laws, and participate in every aspect of daily social life. Although noncitizens behave in much the same ways as citizens, they possess fewer rights and benefits. For one, they cannot vote for representatives who make policy that affect their daily lives.
Immigrants are here to stay and their numbers will only increase, according to projections by the U.S. census. Most immigrants want to become U.S. citizens but are often stymied largely due to bureaucratic red tape. The average time it takes many immigrants to become a U.S. citizen—or to “naturalize”—is ten years or longer after they arrive to America, up from eight years in 1960, according to the U.S. Census. In addition, not all immigrants are eligible to become U.S. citizens today, unlike earlier times when almost everyone who came to the U.S. was able to naturalize; it was a much easier and faster process. Today, in many jurisdictions anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of the adult population are barred from voting because they are noncitizens. The political exclusion of noncitizens raises troubling questions about the nature of our democracy. Why shouldn’t immigrants be able to vote?
The idea of allowing noncitizens to vote may sound odd or outlandish. For most Americans, voting is the essence of citizenship. But it was not always so; nor need it be. In considering the case for immigrant voting rights, there are three things to keep in mind:
- It’s legal. The Constitution does not preclude it and the courts – including the Supreme Court — have upheld voting by noncitizens. Noncitizens have enjoyed voting rights for most of U.S. history and continue to do so today.
- It’s rational. There are moral and practical reasons to restore immigrant voting — including notions of equal rights and treatment – as well as mutual benefits that accrue to all community members, citizen and noncitizen alike.
- It’s feasible. Noncitizen voting is making a comeback in the U.S. and is expanding globally.
Americans are usually surprised to learn that immigrants enjoyed voting rights for most of our history and throughout the vast majority of the country. In fact, from 1776 to 1926, forty states and federal territories permitted noncitizens to vote in local, state and even federal elections. Noncitizens also held public office, such as alderman, coroner, and school board member. In practice, immigrant voting promoted civic education and citizenship. Immigrants learned civics by practice. Immigrant voting was also an effective method for facilitating the incorporation of immigrants. The notion that noncitizens should have the vote is older, was practiced longer, and is more consistent with democratic ideals than the idea that they should not. Curiously, this 150-year history has been eviscerated from American national memory.
Nor is immigrant voting merely a relic of the distant past. Noncitizens currently vote in local elections in over a half dozen cities and towns in the U.S., most notably in Chicago’s school elections and in all local elections in six towns in Maryland. In addition, campaigns to expand the franchise to noncitizens – primarily in local elections – have been launched in more than a dozen other jurisdictions during the past decade, including in New York, Massachusetts, Washington D.C, California, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, and Texas. These campaigns propose to restore voting rights for immigrants in local elections; only a few have contemplated state level elections, and none would grant voting to immigrants in any federal/national election. There are slight variations in which categories of noncitizens can vote. Some cities and towns allow all immigrants to vote, including the undocumented or so-called “illegal” (Chicago and Maryland), while other places grant suffrage only to the documented or “legal” immigrants (Massachusetts). Differences also exist regarding which elections noncitizens can vote in, such as in school board elections, municipal elections, or state races. Although different terms are used to describe immigrant voting, including “noncitizen voting,” “resident voting,” “local citizenship,” and “alien suffrage,” they all mean essentially the same thing: enfranchising or restoring voting rights to those who are excluded from the electorate — immigrants who are not U.S. citizens.
The effort to expand the franchise to immigrants is not particular to the U.S.; it is a global phenomenon. More than forty five countries on nearly every continent allow resident noncitizens to vote at the local, regional or national level in the host countries’ elections, and most adopted such legislation during the past three decades. These policy changes reveal much about the evolution of citizenship and the practice of democracy in the era of globalization. Just as goods and services – products and people – are highly mobile today, notions that rights should follow migrants and apply to immigrants have also become more common. In short, struggles for human rights are on the rise.
This essay examines the politics and practices of noncitizen voting in the U.S., chronicling the rise and fall — and re-emergence — of immigrant voting. In addition, this essay looks at the arguments for and against noncitizen voting, and its impact on policy and American political development.
The Rise and Fall of Immigrant Voting
Before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin framed the importance of voting rights pointedly: “They who have no voice nor vote in the electing of representatives do not enjoy liberty, but are absolutely enslaved to those who have votes.” Many of the early colonies had already allowed noncitizen residents to vote, and the practice was continued when the new states formed their constitutions. The emerging republicanism and liberalism in early America made noncitizen voting a reasonable practice tied to inhabitants and difficult to challenge. America’s diversity was evident at the time of the Revolution, and alien suffrage was a logical extension of the revolutionary cry “No taxation without representation!” Democratic notions, such as the belief that governments derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed,” became “common sense.”
During the first decades of our country’s history voting rights were determined not by citizenship but by whether or not one was a white, male property holder. Thus, women and post-emancipation blacks—who were citizens—could be denied voting rights on the basis of sex or race, not citizenship per se. “Alien suffrage” was compatible with the exclusion of other categories of residents (women, men without property, and blacks) and actually buttressed the privileging of propertied white, male Christians.
Yet, early Americans also viewed alien suffrage as an effective method to encourage newcomers to make America their home. And it worked. Budding Americans learned civics by practice. Getting a taste for democracy furthered immigrants’ understanding of the political system and nurtured attachments to their adopted communities.
Congress promoted noncitizen voting in the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, which gave “freehold aliens” with two years of residency the vote for territorial legislative representatives. Furthermore, it granted “wealthier” resident aliens with three years of residency the right to serve in territorial legislatures. Subsequently, Congress granted voting rights for immigrants in the new territories of Washington, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Oklahoma and also authorized the right of aliens to vote for representatives to statewide constitutional conventions in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.
Wisconsin developed a formula in 1848, which became a model for other states and Congress going forward, which allowed aliens who “declared” their intent to become citizens the right to vote. The declarant alien qualification helped weaken objections of nativists, recasting how alien suffrage was conceived and practiced. Alien suffrage was now seen more clearly to be a pathway to citizenship rather than a substitute for it—a kind of pre-citizen voting. Declarant aliens were now presumed to be on the citizenship track, a line of reasoning that proved effective to deflect opponents’ objections that immigrant voting would deter newcomers from naturalizing.
Soldiers returning from the Civil War demanded the right to vote, providing another effective argument for alien suffrage. Immigrant soldiers argued for and obtained what many perceived as their just reward for service, particularly given they fought for the freedom and voting rights of blacks. Another Civil War–related reason was the need to attract cheap labor, particularly in the South and West after the abolition of slavery. Many new states and territories used voting rights as an incentive to attract new immigrant settlers and as a pathway to citizenship, though not as a substitute.
The Decline of Immigrant Voting
Voting rights have always been linked to questions about, race, class and who would wield political power. With the influx of different kinds and larger numbers of immigrants, noncitizen voting began to be disputed, especially of newcomers who held political views that challenged dominant groups. For example, the War of 1812 slowed and even reversed the spread of alien suffrage, in part by raising the specter of foreign “enemies.” Leading up to the Civil War, the South opposed immigrant voting because many of the new immigrants opposed slavery. One of the first planks in the Confederate Constitution was to exclude voting to anyone who was not born in the U.S. (there would be no “naturalization”). After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, nevertheless, alien suffrage spread in the South and West with the growing need for new labor. Immigrant voting was practiced most widely during the 1870s and 1880s.
But as the twentieth century approached, large numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants came to the U.S.—who were not universally seen as “white” at the time and who often held politically “suspect” views—immigrant voting rights were increasingly challenged. These newer immigrants, coupled with the rise of mass social movements and third political parties (e.g., Labor, Populist, and Socialist), posed a potential threat to the dominant political and social order, and noncitizen voting was gradually eliminated state by state. The anti-immigrant backlash at the turn of the twentieth century and wartime hysteria during World War I led to the elimination of this long-standing practice.
Importantly, noncitizen voting was abolished at the same time that other restrictive measures were also enacted by elites, including literacy tests, poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement laws, and restrictive residency and voter registration requirements—all of which combined to disenfranchise millions of voters. Such disenfranchising measures were promoted and enacted by powerful economic and political elites – in both the Democratic and Republican parties – just when the electoral potential for working-class constituencies, progressive social movements, and third party mobilization was growing. The impact of noncitizens in elections had increased with their numbers—making the difference in several state elections—which feed critics of “the weight of a foreign element” in politics. Elites viewed noncitizen voters as a threat because of the appeal that third party challenges had on immigrants and the working class more generally. Similarly, elites reacted to the growth of big-city political machines that were tied to immigrants.
These disenfranchising measures and the elimination of noncitizen voting rights contributed to the precipitous decline in voter participation during the Progressive Era. From 1840 to 1900 voter turnout in presidential elections ranged from 70 to 80 percent, but dropped to 49 percent by 1924. Voter turnout in state and local elections also fell dramatically.
This was the same period that anti-immigrant federal legislation was enacted, sharply limiting the influx of immigrants. From 1882 until 1924, national anti-immigrant laws were enacted to exclude the entrance of persons on qualitative grounds—the Chinese, criminals, prostitutes, the physically and mentally ill, the illiterate, “anarchists,” and paupers. The 1924 National Origins Act drastically reduced the flow of immigrants and limited the proportion of non–Western European immigrants.
Taken together, these developments limited democratic politics and progressive possibilities in the United States for years to come. The legacy of these changes on American political and social development throughout the twentieth century to this day has been significant, blunting more democratic forms of participation and policy outcomes. It is revealing—but not coincidental—that immigrant voting has been buried in the annals of American history.
The Revival of Immigrant Voting
This silence is striking for a second reason: immigrant voting is being revived today. Since 1970, immigrant voting rights have been restored in several municipalities: Chicago permits noncitizens to vote in school board elections (as did New York City from 1969 until 2003 when school boards were eliminated for unrelated reasons), and noncitizens currently vote in six municipalities in Maryland. These jurisdictions make no distinction between documented and undocumented immigrants—all noncitizens are permitted to vote in these local elections (as was true in New York City). Cambridge, Amherst, Newton, and Brookline Massachusetts, have extended the right for documented noncitizens in local elections (but state action is needed to implement these local laws).
In addition, over a dozen other jurisdictions from coast to coast have considered moving toward enfranchising noncitizens in local elections, including San Francisco and several other cities in California (San Bernardino and Los Angeles), Washington D.C., Boston, New York City, Portland, Maine, Madison, Wisconsin, Denver, Colorado, as well as several states such as Connecticut, Minnesota, and Texas.
Globally, forty five countries on nearly every continent permit voting by resident immigrants. The Maastricht Treaty in 1993 granted all Europeans the right to vote in European Union countries other than their own, expanding what has been practiced for years in Ireland (1963), Sweden (1975), Ireland (1975), the Netherlands (1975), Denmark (1977), and Norway (1978). In the 1980s, the Netherlands, Venezuela, Ireland, Spain, and Iceland enacted legislation enfranchising resident aliens; several Swiss cantons (e.g., Neufchatel and Jura) have permitted noncitizen voting for over a century; Finland and Iceland allow Nordic citizens voting rights, while Estonia allows noncitizen voting at the local level. Belgium and Rome have more recently joined the fold. Noncitizens vote in countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa, and New Zealand. Thus, the trend to expand the franchise is hardly unique to the United States.
Why Immigrant Voting Today?
The revival of immigrant voting is, in part, a civil-rights and human-rights response to neo-liberal globalization and its consequences. Globalization has propelled mass migration and ideas of “citizens without borders” or “global citizens.” The extension of free trade across the globe makes products and people from remote parts of the world highly mobile and readily exchangeable. These changes have prompted heated debate about newcomers and national immigration policy. Controversy swirls about the impact of immigrants on everything from labor markets and wages, crime and public morals, electoral outcomes and public spending to awareness about race, ethnic, and national identity and basic questions about what is America and who is an American. Nativistic responses have led to proposals to restrict immigration limit eligibility to health care, education, and other public services. Immigrant advocates, on the other hand, see demographic changes as leading to the inevitable triumph of multiculturalism and progressive politics. Consequently, emerging patterns of immigration has changed the political arithmetic, propelling parties and politicians who jockey for advantage to adjust campaign strategies to reflect evolving electoral conditions.
Immigrants have reemerged as pivotal players in contemporary American politics, although their numbers exceed their political representation and clout. Witness the proliferation of immigrant organizations that engage in advocacy and have built alliances with other groups on a range of issues, including labor, housing, education, health, language access, social welfare, and foreign policy. In recent years, millions of immigrants have marched in the streets in hundreds of cities, walked picket lines, and lobbied legislatures with greater frequency and force. Immigrant groups have also mobilized to promote naturalization, voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, which contributing to increased turnout and victories for Democrats in Congress (2006) and to Obama’s victory (2008). Immigrant voters showed up in the 2010 elections, having significant impacts in California and Nevada’s elections for example. Such activity reveals a growing awareness among immigrants that they possess legitimate claims on the American polity, and they are commanding greater attention. One form that immigrant mobilization has taken is in campaigns to gain the vote.
The rising number of noncitizens has significant political implications, especially in the states and metropolitan areas where immigrants are concentrated. Because noncitizens are counted for districting purposes, they affect the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and can have an impact on presidential elections because electoral votes are allocated based on representation in Congress. At the state and local levels, where they make up a larger proportion of the potential electorate, immigrants can have an even greater impact. Although immigrants who have naturalized hold the capacity to influence winners and losers in close contests, noncitizen adults are denied political voice. The numbers are staggering: noncitizens comprise over 10 percent of the voting-age population in many states — over 20 percent in California – and are even more highly concentrated at the local level. Adult noncitizens in Los Angeles make up more than a third of the voting-age population; in New York City, they are 22 percent of adults. In some cities and towns, a quarter to a half of the adult population is excluded from selecting representatives who make the policies that affect daily life. The level of political exclusion in these jurisdictions approximates the level of disenfranchisement associated with the exclusion of women and African Americans. It is no surprise that immigrants rank at the bottom of the social order.
What do these conditions mean for such basic democratic principles as “one person, one vote,” “government rests on the consent of the governed,” and “no taxation without representation”? Immigrant political exclusion challenges the ideals of a modern democracy, cutting to the heart of our political practice. Restoring immigrant voting rights would help address these inequities.
Contemporary Campaigns in the U.S.: For and Against
Several characteristics stand out in nearly every campaign to restore immigrant voting during in the contemporary period: demographic shifts propelled immigrant mobilization; proponents of noncitizen voting (ethnic associations, civic groups, labor unions, faith-based organizations) engaged in grassroots organizing, coalition building, employing effective media strategies and lobbying; and sympathetic politicians, mostly liberal Democrats and some Green Party members, who enacted or supported legislation. Opponents of noncitizen voting have been conservative Democrats and Republicans, representatives who view noncitizen voters as a potential threat to their incumbency, community residents and groups that express anti-immigrant sentiments or object to immigrant voting on other grounds. Campaigns have often appeared in clusters. For example several campaigns occurred in the early 1990s, including the successful campaigns in Maryland and Massachusetts. In 2004, three campaigns were launched– in New York City, Washington D.C. and San Francisco (unsuccessfully). In 2010, campaigns were conducted in Portland Maine, Brookline Massachusetts, New York City and San Francisco.
In every case, campaigns were contentious and the outcomes have been quite close. In 2010 two cities held referendums on immigrant voting. Voters in San Francisco narrowly defeated a ballot proposal (Proposition D) by a margin of 54.91% to 45.09 % that would have granted all parents and guardians of children in the public school system voting rights in school board elections, regardless of their immigrant status. Voters in Portland Maine also narrowly defeated a ballot proposal by a margin of 52.43% to 47.57 %, which would have granted voting rights in all municipal elections to legal permanent residents. Brookline Massachusetts, on the other hand, successfully passed legislation in 2010 allowing legal residents the right to vote in local elections. Similarly, momentum has been building to do the same in New York City where a recent bill has obtained the support of 21 of the 51 members of the New York City Council (26 are needed to pass it) and several candidates for mayor have endorsed it.
Opponents to noncitizen voting raise several objections including, claiming it is illegal, it would diminish the value and meaning of citizenship, blur the lines between citizens and noncitizens, and reduce incentives for immigrants to naturalize. Some object that immigrants already have a pathway to voting—by becoming a citizen. Individuals wishing to vote should take the step to naturalize, like everyone else. People should have loyalty to one country, not two. Granting immigrants voting rights would lead to less informed voters, increase vote fraud, make the difference in close elections, and affect contentious public policy issues. Immigrant rights advocates have their own concerns. Some worry that immigrants would become further exposed and made more vulnerable if voting rights laws were not crafted carefully, protecting registrants’ confidentiality. Some minority group members worry their voting power and number of representatives would be diluted at a time when they are reaching parity with whites in many areas and levels of governance. These objections are answered by proponents in the rich debates which typify every initiative to restore or grant voting rights to noncitizens.
Advocates contend that immigrant voting is legal and feasible. They note that the U.S. Constitution does not preclude voting by noncitizens, and both state and federal courts have upheld noncitizen voting. In Minor v. Happersett, for example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1874, “Citizenship has not in all cases been made a condition precedent to the enjoyment of the right of suffrage.” Subsequent federal and state court rulings have upheld voting by noncitizens. The decision about who holds the franchise has — with very few exceptions — always rested with states and localities. Some campaigns to restore immigrant voting have been conducted through the use of local referendum (Takoma Park, Maryland and San Francisco), though most have been enacted by local statute (Chicago, New York). In jurisdictions where a change to state law – or approval by the state of a local change – is required, campaigns have been less successful. State constitutional provisions prohibiting voting by noncitizens create the biggest obstacle to advocates, though some have developed savvy legal strategies to get around such barriers (ex. San Francisco).
In addition, advocates argue there are moral and practical reasons to restore immigrant voting rights. The acquisition of political rights—including voting rights—has been a vital tool for every disempowered group in America’s history to achieve economic, social, and civil rights and equality. Because legislative bodies confer rights and make public policy, it is critical to possess the capacity to influence and select representatives. Legal barriers to political participation, however, have historically hampered the attainment of such rights by distinct classes of citizens, including African Americans, women, and young people. Previously excluded groups have gained access to the franchise principally through political struggle. They fought their way into the polity through political agitation, sometimes with the support of factions within political parties or via third parties, through social movements and independent organizations, or by using the courts as a tool. Ultimately they needed the support of other sectors in society to win political rights. The agitation of the property-less encouraged sectors of the propertied to extend the franchise; the abolitionist movement and civil rights movements led whites to enfranchise blacks; the suffragettes compelled men to include women among the voting citizenry; and younger adults, after participation in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, were granted voting rights by older adults when the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen in 1971 with the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment. Why not for immigrants too?
Advocates argue that without the vote noncitizens are at risk of discrimination and bias because policy makers can, and often do, ignore their interests. Immigrants score lowest in indicators of well being, including in employment, housing, education, and health. 1 in 4 immigrants are poor; 1 in 4 children of immigrants are “food insecure” (go hungry). Discriminatory public policy and private practices—in employment, housing, education, health care, welfare, and criminal justice—are the inevitable by-products of immigrant political exclusion.
Restoring immigrant voting rights would extend the visibility and voices of immigrants, which in turn could make government more representative, responsive, and accountable. Winning immigrant voting rights could help reverse such inequities. Moreover, noncitizen voting might help advance other issues important to immigrants, from obtaining language assistance in public facilities to speeding up the naturalization process and eliminating racial profiling and hate crimes.
Creating universal suffrage would facilitate immigrant political incorporation and ultimately bring benefits to the larger society as a whole. We should encourage all residents of our cities and towns to participate in the life of their communities—regardless of whether they come from Iowa or Ireland—because we all have the same interests in ensuring there are good schools, safe streets, living wage jobs, and affordable health care and housing. We’re a stronger society when everyone participates, because everyone benefits if decisions are made democratically.
Most immigrants want to become citizens but are often deterred for little reason other than bureaucratic roadblocks that have been erected. Technically, immigrants that obtain legal permanent residency (green cards) can apply for citizenship after five years. But the path to legal permanent residency can take ten years or more for many immigrants. In addition, immigrants face daunting obstacles in the process, including application fees, lack of access to the English and civics classes needed to prepare for the naturalization examination, and application backlogs that can range from six months to nearly two years.
Moreover, millions of immigrants are not eligible to become U.S. citizens because the pathways to citizenship are restricted to certain categories of individuals, such as family members, asylum seekers, and military personnel. Thus, it is not only undocumented or “illegal” immigrants who are not eligible for citizenship but also the millions of documented or “legal” immigrants who may possess any one of the nearly two dozen types of visas (including long term worker and student visas) that also are precluded from becoming citizens.
In the meantime these newest Americans are subject to all the laws, work in every sector of the economy, own businesses, send their children to school, have revitalized neighborhoods in every city in the country, contribute billions of dollars in taxes each year, serve in the military, and even die defending this country. Yet they cannot vote on issues crucial to the quality of their daily lives. Excluding such a significant portion of the population from political participation closes off a proven pathway to promote civic education and citizenship. Worse, it undermines the health and legitimacy of our laws and public policies. Rather than undermining democracy, as some argue, resident voting could lead to more robust democratic politics and policy making. And instead of diluting the concept of citizenship, as its critics maintain, resident voting can enrich citizenship by encouraging immigrants to participate in the political life of their communities. Ultimately, advocates must make a compelling case that immigrant voting is the right thing to do and that benefits will accrue to all members of a community.
To illustrate this latter point – that mutual benefits accrue to all community members –consider the following example from New York City. Noncitizen immigrants voted and ran for office in the Community School Board Elections from 1969 to 2002. Each of the thirty-two community school boards had significant powers, such as hiring superintendents and principals and allocate funding for certain programs. During the 1980s, many school districts were characterized by over crowed schools, out of date books, lack of language access or cultural competency, crumbling facilities, no after school programs—all combining to produce poor education for the students, which contributed to and further perpetuated the low socio-economic status of their families. In Washington Heights, a predominantly Dominican section of northern Manhattan, a vibrant voter registration drive in 1986 brought in 10,000 parent voters—most of them immigrants—who turned out in record numbers. This political mobilization led to the election on the local school board of a majority of advocates for immigrants, including the first Dominican ever elected in the U.S., Guillermo Linares, who became the president of the school board. These developments, in turn, contributed to improvements in the schools and helped reshape community politics. (Linares later became a City Councilmember and then head of Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and is currently a New York State Assemblyman.)
As a result of this mobilization — and similar efforts in other districts — the city devoted more funds to improve and build new schools in Washington Heights. In the end, it was not only Dominicans that benefited. All community residents—including older stock Irish, Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican and Black families who still lived there—benefited from improved education opportunities. Moreover, it was not just residents in Washington Heights that benefited: school budgets grew in other districts in New York City, producing improvements in student and family outcomes. Importantly, these examples were not isolated to districts in New York City—similar positive results are also evident in other cities were immigrants have voted (and still do), such as in Chicago and in Maryland. Even in cases where immigrant voting campaigns have thus far failed to win, immigrants and their neighbors have won improvements to public services and made policy gains due in part to their political mobilization and advocacy, including regarding schools, hospitals, transportation, housing, jobs, and so on.
Expand the Franchise
Campaigns for noncitizen voting rights provide immigrants with a crucial tool to defend themselves against nativist attacks. It also gives other minority groups greater means to forge winning voting blocs that can advance their mutual interests. Immigrant taxation without representation not only challenges the legitimacy of America’s mantle of democratic governance but also provides a rationale and opportunity for organizing a progressive political majority.
Just as the civil rights movement sought to extend the franchise to African Americans and others who had been barred from voting to attain equitable representation, renewed efforts to extend the franchise to new Americans would advance the cause of human rights. True universal suffrage could boost possibilities for working-class electoral majorities and strengthen chances for winning progressive policies. Of course, progressives run the risk—one they willingly accept for the sake of democratic principles—that enfranchised immigrants might vote for conservative candidates and issues.
Essentially, the issue is about fairness. It is only fair that persons who are part of a local community and contribute to its tax base and economy should have a say in the formulation of laws and policies that will have a direct bearing on their well-being. Excluding persons from voting because of their lack of citizenship is to exclude them from the body politic. As we move forward in this new century, we must continue to make the political process more accessible to everyone. By doing so, we will help politically integrate individuals and groups who have a vested interest in our collective future. Equally important, all community members will benefit. Everyone has common interests in good public services and in accessible and affordable public goods from quality education and health care to jobs. Such outcomes are likely to be more widely available if all community members participate in decision-making processes.
As Jamin Raskin, one of the most outspoken and prominent intellectual voices of the contemporary movement for noncitizen voting rights in the U.S., said, “immigrant rights are the civil rights” of the day and “by that logic, noncitizen voting is the suffrage movement” of our time. The burgeoning movement to create a truly universal suffrage calls forth America’s past and future as an immigrant nation. Restoring voting rights to all residents would update our democracy for these global times.
Ron Hayduk, Professor of Political Science, Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York (CUNY).
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