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How Involved Should Undocumented Immigrants Be in Elections?

There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, many of whom have children in public schools and pay property and sales taxes. They can’t vote in federal elections or in most municipal elections, but they can volunteer for campaigns and canvass for causes they support.

The Washington Post has an article today on efforts by OneAmerica Votes, an arm of the large immigrant rights organization OneAmerica, to get immigrants involved in the election. Non-citizens — both undocumented immigrants and legal residents — are canvassing for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in support of comprehensive immigration reform:

Pramila Jayapal, head of OneAmerica Votes, says the campaign is about empowering immigrants who may not feel like they can contribute to a campaign because they can’t vote.

“Immigrants really do matter,” Jayapal said. “If we can’t vote ourselves, we’re gonna knock on doors, or get family members to vote.”

So far the illegal immigrants going door-to-door aren’t meeting opposition. Craig Keller, an organizer for Respect WA, a group pushing for stricter immigration law in the Washington, said he doesn’t mind illegal immigrants volunteering for vote drives, he just wants to make sure mistakes on the voter rolls don’t allow them to vote.

“Anybody can go out and wave a sign, but when it comes to who’s making the choices, there’s no question they need to be citizens,” Keller said.

As I reported today, voters in two cities will decide on Nov. 2 whether to allow non-citizens to vote in certain elections. In Portland, Maine, a ballot question could allow legal immigrants who have not yet obtained citizenship to vote in municipal elections. In San Francisco, a proposition would allow all parents of public school students to vote in school elections regardless of their legal status.

Supporters argue the efforts are about fairness: Immigrants pay taxes, so they should be able to have a say in government. It’s not unprecedented: Chicago allows all parents to vote in its school elections, and six Maryland cities allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections. Early in the country’s history, non-citizens could vote in nearly every state.

But opponents of the measures argue the right to vote should be restricted to citizens, claiming to do otherwise would disincentivize gaining citizenship for legal residents. “It’s silly not to require that formal step of marrying America instead of just shacking up,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the pro-enforcement Center for American Studies.

Stanley Renshon, also of the Center for Immigration Studies, made a similar point in a post about the OneAmerica canvassing effort:

What’s wrong with illegal immigrants taking part in the political process by trying to convince others to vote for pro-legalization candidates? Legally, as noted, nothing; ethically a great deal. [...]

They have no legal standing as members of the American national community and no moral standing, either, since they are present only by virtue of their own decision to violate American immigration laws.

Renshon is right about at least the legality of the issue: Immigrants have every right to participate in campaigns. If the ballot initiatives pass in San Francisco and Portland, Maine, they will also legally be allowed to vote.

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