COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT IMMIGRANT VOTING
“Voting is the essence of citizenship.”
The right to vote is about political power; not citizenship per se. That is why blacks and women-who were citizens-were historically denied the right to vote. In fact, immigrant voting rights were eliminated during the late 19th and early twentieth centuries at the same time other measures that barred voting were enacted, including literacy tests, poll taxes, felony disenfranchisement laws, restrictive residency requirements and voter registration procedures. Taken together, these “reforms” combined to disenfranchise millions of Blacks, immigrants and working people of all stripes.
Moreover, advocates seek voting rights for immigrants on the local and state level, not nationally. One might agree that people should become U.S. citizens to vote in national elections, but immigrants are already members of their local communities and possess all the other responsibilities and duties of local citizenship. Permanent residents are already, in a clear sense, citizens of the city. Granting newer New Yorkers a vote in local elections will make policy makers more mindful of all residents, which ultimately benefits our democracy.
Far too many Americans think of voting only as a “right” and not also as a responsibility, discouraging people from voting gives the message that the community does not want its members to take a stake in contributing to the betterment of the place where they live and to holding local officials accountable for their behavior. As the social reformer Saul Alinsky has written, “We must recognize that one of the best ways to insure that men will assume obligations to their fellow men and to society is to make them feel that they are definitely a part of society and that society means enough to them so that they actually feel obligated or have obligations.”
We should encourage all residents of our cities and towns to participate in the life of their communities regardless of where they come from, whether they come from Delaware or the Dominican Republic. We all have the same interests in good schools, safe streets, affordable health care and housing. We’re a stronger society when everyone participates because everyone benefits if decisions are made democratically.
“Americans have fought and died to defend the right to vote. Why should we give it to people who are not citizens?”
From the American Revolution to Iraq, noncitizens have fought to defend American ideals, and even died for them. Today, there are more than 70,000 noncitizens in the U.S. armed forces. The newest New Yorkers have fought in every war and continue to fight and die in Iraq. In fact, one of the first casualties in the war in Iraq was a young Dominican solder, Riayan Tejeda, who was granted citizenship posthumously. The Armed Services actively recruits immigrant communities, especially in Latino communities.
In fact, immigrants may be more likely to fight and die than most Americans. Right now all legal permanent residents must agree to take up arms for the United States; should a draft be reinstated, they would be the first ones called. In 1971, the U.S. voting age was lowered to 18 in acknowledgment of the soldiers under 21 who were required to risk their lives for this country but previously could not vote.
America has a long history of immigrants fighting on our behalf. In the Civil War, the confederates opposed immigrant suffrage (in no small part because many immigrants opposed slavery); a large part of the Union Army was comprised of noncitizens (almost 20%). In both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and countless conflicts around the world, immigrants have been on the front lines.
“Giving immigrants the right to vote discourages them from becoming citizens.”
Many immigrants who want to become citizens but because of bureaucratic red tape must wait an average of ten years to naturalize. The naturalization process has become more difficult, costly, and time consuming. Historically, it was much easier and faster to become a citizen. Few by comparison were denied. But, as different immigrant groups came to the U.S., many of whom were not universally seen as “white” at the time and who had different religious and ideological orientations (i.e. were not WASPs), the laws and procedures required to become a citizen changed. More recently, laws passed in 1996 and subsequently have increased the number of rejections and deportations.
During the time it takes to become a citizen, immigrants miss out on an important opportunity to contribute to their new country. Meanwhile, their children miss the chance to learn by the example of seeing their parents vote. Immigrant voting is not a substitute for citizenship, but rather a clear pathway to citizenship. Immigrant voting promotes civic education and political literacy among newcomers.
For many immigrants, the biggest reason to hesitate before applying for citizenship is emotional, not rational; they often do not want to naturalize until they “feel American.” Thus, immigrant voting will actually encourage citizenship by encouraging immigrants to become more involved in their new communities.
At a time when one in nine U.S. residents is born abroad and the need to integrate newcomers into our society is so important, this country does far too little to encourage immigrants to learn about and participate in our civic institutions. Local voting rights give immigrants incentives to take a stake in working to understand and better their adopted communities and to prepare themselves for eventual citizenship and national voting rights.
“So if the wait for naturalization is so long, then instead of giving the vote we should just speed up the citizenship process.”
Immigrant advocates in New York and around the country have long argued that the United States should speed up the painfully slow citizenship process. Even were the naturalization process shortened to considerably below the current average wait of ten years, however, it would not diminish the reasons to allow residents the local vote regardless of their citizenship. Ask any naturalized immigrant if their pride in being sworn in as a U.S. citizen would at all be diminished by having had the right to vote in local elections beforehand. For many immigrants, applying for citizenship is a confirmation that they have come to feel “American” — not the other way around.
“This idea is way ahead of its time.”
Immigrant voting was important to the Founding Fathers of the United States. From the Founding until 1926, 22 states and federal territories permitted noncitizens to vote in local, state and even federal elections. In New York City, noncitizens voted in school board elections from 1970 to 2002 (when school boards were dissolved). Since 1988, Chicago has allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections. Six towns in Maryland permit noncitizens to vote in local elections.
Both the historical and contemporary practices come out of the same democratic principles: recognition that members of a community have a stake in decision making that affects that community, embodied in the rallying cry of the American Revolution: “No Taxation without Representation!”
The Constitution allows states to let immigrants vote in local elections; the Supreme Court has upheld states rights to permit noncitizens to vote. Leaders including Jefferson and Lincoln understood that letting noncitizens vote in local elections promoted bonds to their new communities and nation, encouraging active citizenship and naturalization.