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Bucking anti-immigrant trend, some communities push for non-citizen voting


Legal immigrants will be allowed to vote in city elections in Portland, Maine, if a ballot initiative passes on Nov. 2.

Last Wednesday, a group of progressive volunteers gathered in Monument Square in Portland, Maine, to quiz passersby about citizenship. Could they answer sample civics questions from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test to become an American citizen? (Most couldn’t.) Did they know how much it costs to become a citizen or how long it can take? (Most estimates were too low.) Did they know about Question 4 on the Portland, Maine, city ballot Nov. 2?

[Immigration1] In a city where legal immigrants make up about 15 percent of the population, the progressive groups Maine People’s Alliance and the League of Young Voters are working to encourage voters to extend voting rights to legal immigrants who have not yet become citizens. They argue these residents live, work and pay taxes in the city, but due to the difficulty of obtaining citizenship are unfairly denied the right to determine how the city spends its funds.

“Legal immigrants are active members of the community and shouldn’t be denied a voice because of these major barriers,” said Reva Eiferman, an organizer with Maine People’s Alliance. “There’s a disconnect between the citizenship process within the immigration system and an individual’s right to have their voice heard in their city.”

As cities and states across the country consider legislation aimed at limiting the flow of outsiders to their areas, a few municipalities are moving in the opposite direction, pushing to expand the rights of immigrants living within their borders. In Portland, Question 4 would allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections. A ballot proposition in San Francisco aims to take voting one step further, allowing even illegal immigrants to vote in school elections as long as they are the parents of a public school student. In New York, city council members plan to introduce legislation allowing legal residents to vote in city elections within the next few months.

These efforts show that while anti-immigrant sentiment is prevalent, it’s not universal, supporters argue.

“It responds to what’s happening nationwide — the new policies in Arizona included — in a positive way,” Eiferman said.

Non-citizens can already vote in six Maryland municipalities and in Chicago school elections, but the rest of the country gives voting privileges only to citizens. Early in the country’s history, non-citizens were allowed to vote in most states, but as immigration into the United States increased, residents began to restrict voting rights, state by state. (Federal elections have always limited voting to citizens.) By the 1920s, as Europeans moved to the country after World War I, states cut off legal immigrant voting rights entirely, and only a few cities have so far reinstated them.

“It was kind of like the atmosphere now: There was concern about the volume of newcomers and what it means for the nature of America and where it’s headed,” said Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at the City University in New York and a supporter of expanding New York voting rights to non-citizens.

If immigrants can vote, they will never bother to become citizens, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the anti-illegal immigration group Center for Immigration Studies. He said the citizenship process is sufficiently easy for legal immigrants that they should be required to fully commit to the country before getting the right to vote.

“It’s silly not to require that formal step of marrying America instead of just shacking up,” Krikorian said.

But supporters argue that voting would help legal immigrants become more invested in their cities and schools. The San Francisco ballot measure to give parents of public school students the right to vote, Proposition D, could dramatically increase the number of potential voters in school elections: About half of all children in the Bay area have at least one immigrant parent, according to a study by the California Immigration Policy Center.

“I really believe our schools will be better if more parents are involved in every level of school governance,” said Kathy Coll, the mother of two San Francisco Unified School District students and one of three co-chairmen of the campaign for Proposition D.

In New York, the effort to expand voting will go through the city council, not through voters directly. City council member Daniel Dromm, a Democrat, said the council plans to consider legislation to extend voting in city elections to legal immigrants with the next few months. The bill will be called the Resident Voting Rights Act — “They are residents, they’re just not citizens yet,” Dromm said — and would allow any legal resident to vote in municipal elections.

“I feel it’s a basic right: This country was founded on the premise of ‘no taxation without representation,’” Dromm said. “By denying residents the right to vote, we are forcing taxation without representation.”

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