The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Documented Immigrants Demand Vote in New York City

by Shreema Mehta

As the immigration issue heats up nationwide, noncitizen New Yorkers – where documented immigrants constitute a huge minority – want the right to have a say in local politics.

Apr. 14, 2006 – Tapping into momentum from the recent nationwide outpouring of pro-immigrant rallies, a coalition of rights groups in New York City has won the re-introduction of a bill that would give more than a million legal residents the right to vote in city elections.

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The measure is the result of a long campaign to gain citywide support for noncitizen voting by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, which represents around 70 immigrant-rights, labor, religious and other advocacy groups. After two years of community forums, direct mail outreach, and meetings with 40 local lawmakers, last week the Coalition worked with Brooklyn Councilor Charles Barron to re-introduce the Voting Rights Restoration Act in City Council. The bill would enfranchise approximately 1.3 million immigrant residents age eighteen or older who are not yet citizens. Advocates are currently working on gaining co-sponsors and pushing a council hearing on the bill.

Under the measure, immigrants who have resided legally in New York City for at least six months would be eligible to vote in all city elections. While the coalition originally sought to extend voting rights to undocumented immigrants as well, members said they ultimately restricted the bill to legal residents in order to make the measure more politically viable, and out of concern that undocumented immigrants whose names showed up in voter-registration rolls could be discovered and deported by authorities.

Under the measure, immigrants who have resided legally in New York City for at least six months would be eligible to vote in all city elections.

Currently, several towns and cities in Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois allow undocumented immigrants to vote in school board or municipal elections.

Foreign-born residents account for 36 percent of New York City’s total population, according to the Department of City Planning. In neighborhoods such as Washington Heights in Manhattan and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the figure climbs as high as six in ten.

Diana Salas, chief researcher for the Women of Color Policy Network, a think-tank on race and gender issues based out of New York University, said many immigrants are long-time legal, taxpaying residents who feel they have no say in elections that affect them.

"People who’ve lived here for quite some time have a stake in what happens locally. These people are very excited about voting," said Salas, who has worked to register voters in communities of color and is herself a non-citizen.

One of these residents is Yolanda Andersson, a coordinator with the Humanist Center of Cultures and a New York resident for seven years.

"I work every day in my community. I know about the law. I pay taxes," Andersson told The NewStandard. "Why do I not have these rights?" She added that her biggest concern was improving public schools, especially in her diverse neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens where classrooms are overcrowded and after-school programs are underfunded.

Until recently, the school system in New York City did allow noncitizens to participate in elections.

Legal residents can only apply for naturalization after living in the United States for five years. In 2002, it took an average of eight years for immigrants to naturalize, from the first day of legal residence to the signing of the oath, according to a report released by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that manages naturalization applications.

Salas, who recently started the naturalization process, said she hopes getting the right to vote in city elections herself will make her voter registration efforts easier.

"All I can do is say my peace and keep moving because I can’t vote," she said. "Granted, you could go to public hearings, but that’s not leveraging power."

Michele Wucker, co-founder of the Immigrant Voting Project, argued that allowing noncitizen voting would benefit all New Yorkers, not just immigrants.

"I lived up in Washington Heights last year, and I learned very quickly you could not rely on the A Train. Further down, in neighborhoods with a lot of gentrification, they were able to improve the train service to eliminate skip stops," she said. "If my neighbors can’t vote, it’s harder for me to make sure the bus will come in time, that the streets are safe."

But Stephan Thernstrom, Winthrop professor of history at Harvard University and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said such a measure would "pretty much abandon the concept of citizenship today."

He said voting is one of the few distinctions between a citizen and resident. "It seems questionable to me," he said, "throwing the ballot box to people who may not have a commitment, who may be here temporarily and may return, who didn’t pass a citizenship test."

Immigrants’ rights advocates have launched movements to enfranchise noncitizens all over the country.

Cheryl Wertz, at New Immigration Community Empowerment, which has helped lead the outreach efforts for the New York City voting-rights campaign, said her group’s biggest challenge is to combat this view.

"The most negative response we get is, ‘you’re giving away the essence of noncitizenship.’ The fact is that’s not true. For those people who do become a citizen, the process takes a minimum of six years and a maximum of 20 years. While people are pursuing this process, their kids are growing in schools where they have no say."

Until recently, the school system in New York City did allow noncitizens to participate in elections. According to the Gotham Gazette, a New York City reference website, noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, were able to vote in school board elections from 1969 until school boards were disbanded in 2003.

"The community benefit is high enough" for allowing noncitizen voting, Wucker said. "Everyone recognizes the benefit of having parents involved in their [children’s] education."

The Chicago Public school system still allows parents to vote in board elections regardless of their citizenship status.

Immigrants’ rights advocates have launched movements to enfranchise noncitizens all over the country. In Massachusetts, the city of Cambridge and town of Amherst have both passed laws allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections and are currently awaiting state approval. Six communities in Maryland have extended voting rights for all immigrants regardless of their legal status in local elections for more than a decade.

Kimberly Propeack, a community organizer with Casa de Maryland, said that towns in the Washington area had an unusually high number of diplomats, as well as peace activists who have fled Central American dictatorships, and other highly educated immigrants with a keen interest in voting. Since district lines are drawn around census counts that make no distinctions in citizenship status, Propeack told TNS the measures allow for fairer governmental representation.

"There’s a lot of legislators I work with all the time who say, ‘I represent undocumented people, too, because my numbers are based on their inclusion," said Propeack, whose organization is based in Takoma Park, one of the six Maryland communities with expanded voting rights.

Ron Hayduk, co-founder of the Immigrant Voting Project and political-science professor at the City University of New York, said the city could adopt the same policies, and that the time to do it is now, while the political mobilization of immigrants is making national news.

"If the immigrants’ rights movement is today’s civil rights movement," he said, "then noncitizen voting is today’s suffrage movement."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Article originally appeared in the April 14, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Shreema Mehta is a staff journalist.

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