As the federal government moves to deport more immigrants, Mayor John DeStefano disclosed a plan on an opposite track: To lobby the state legislature to allow all New Haven’s immigrants, including non-citizens, to vote in local elections.
DeStefano (pictured) made the disclosure Tuesday morning after a press conference outside the Columbus Family Academy at 255 Blatchley Ave., where he and other politicians gathered to announce their opposition to the federal “Secure Communities initiative” to deport more immigrants who are here illegally.
DeStefano said he plans to lobby the state for a “resident voting rights” bill that would allow any resident of New Haven—regardless of immigration status—to vote in municipal elections in New Haven. He said he’ll launch the effort during this upcoming legislative session, which runs from February to May.
The bill is about “how you define community, and how you define responsibility in community,” he said.
Several Maryland municipalities already allow non-citizen voting, including Takoma Park, which granted illegal immigrants the right to vote in 1992. Chicago allows non-citizens to vote in school board elections. The proposal has failed in some other communities, such as San Francisco and Portland, Maine.
DeStefano proposed allowing all New Haven residents the right to vote, as long as they provide identification and proof of residency. That’s the same basis by which he offered the immigrant-friendly municipal ID card in 2007. (Currently, only U.S. citizens can vote in elections.)
DeStefano estimated that New Haven has 10,000 non-citizen immigrants, maybe half of them above the age of 18.
The mayor’s quest to make New Haven more inclusive of its immigrant community launched him into the national spotlight in 2007. He also had the police department issue a general order preventing officers from inquiring into people’s immigration status. His latest voting effort is likely to do the same.
DeStefano said the idea found favor this week in Westville, where he ran into an English couple living here on green cards without the right to vote in the States.
“You are the ones who argued about taxation without representation,” the couple said to him, he recalled. It’s only fair that all taxpayers have the right to vote, they argued. DeStefano said his bill would help not just undocumented immigrants, but those who might be here legally but don’t have the right to vote.
DeStefano will need the support of legislators in order to make any headway at the Capitol. He was asked if New Haven’s state delegation is supporting his effort.
“We’ve got some education to do on this,” he replied.
DeStefano will need a committee to introduce the bill, the practice in “short session” years at the legislature.
He found some first-blush support with state Rep. Juan Candelaria of New Haven.
“I agree with him that anyone who resides in the city of New Haven should have the ability to vote,” Candelaria said. “I don’t know about the legalities, but if you work in the state, your kids attend local schools and you’ve been a resident for a fair amount of time, that would make sense.”
Candelaria predicted that “it’s not going to be easy” to pass a non-citizen voting bill. The legislature “had a hard time” passing even the DREAM act, which granted in-state tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants.
New Haven State Rep. Roland Lemar declined comment on the proposal, saying he had just learned about it.
Nationally, a movement to grant non-citizen immigrants local voting rights has sprung up in “close to two dozen states,” according to Michele Wucker, president of the World Policy Institute and author of Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right.
“The idea is that when you live in a city, you are essentially a citizen of that city, which is separate form federal or national citizenship,” Wucker said Tuesday. “The logic is that everybody is better off when everyone on their block and in their town has a stake in staying on top of issues and working together and to get safe and clean streets, good schools, reliable transportation, and good health care.
“The other part of the argument is that from the beginning of U.S. history until the 1920s, non-citizen voting was very common, at one point in 44 states and territories, at various levels. The movement now is for local elections. In most cases, with the exceptions of school boards, it’s for people who have their papers, who are legal. This is not illegal immigrants voting for president.”
Campaigns for local voting rights usually include all immigrants here legally when it comes to municipal elections (like for mayor), and include undocumented immigrants when it comes to school board elections, Wucker said.