Special Report
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted Thursday, April 8, 2004
nytlogo.gif (3067 bytes)

Push Is On to Give Legal Immigrants Vote in New York


At first glance, it may seem a long shot in an era of orange alerts and stepped-up border patrols. But quietly and carefully, elected officials, labor unions and community groups are starting to push the notion of allowing legal immigrants who are not United States citizens to vote in New York City elections.

Supporters say it is not an outlandish proposition. They point out that even without citizenship, legal immigrants pay taxes, send their children to public schools and serve in the military. Noncitizens in many states were allowed to vote in local, state and even Congressional elections as recently as the 1920's. Until New York City moved to abolish its school boards two years ago, all residents had the right to vote for and serve on them. And although a proposal to open city elections to immigrants was raised 10 years ago without success, some people believe that the time may now be right.

In the last decade, five towns in Maryland have allowed noncitizens, even illegal immigrants, to vote in local elections. Campaigns for immigrant voting rights are under way in several cities, including Hartford; Cambridge, Mass.; and Washington, where Mayor Anthony Williams has said he supports giving legal immigrants the vote in District of Columbia elections.

Those initiatives may be taken more seriously in a campaign season when politicians in both major parties are making overtures to immigrants, as President Bush has with his proposal to grant temporary legal status to millions now living here illegally.

For the moment, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has declined to express an opinion on the subject, and Gifford Miller, the speaker of the City Council, said this week that he was still studying the legal issues. Several union locals have quietly indicated their support, though only one has formally joined the coalition that is promoting the idea.

At a minimum, it is an intriguing prospect in a city with about a million legal immigrants of voting age who are not citizens — equivalent to more than a fifth of the total number of current voters. Granting those people, most of them Hispanic or Asian, the right to vote could change the electoral calculus in a number of arenas, from the races for mayor and the five borough presidents to ballot questions on city borrowing and building projects.

The new voters would be more likely to elect minority candidates, political analysts say, and could force politicians to become more responsive to issues like deportation policy and immigrant access to health care. If voting rights were extended to the state level — truly a long shot at this point — the effects would be even greater, forcing redistricting that could affect the balance of power in Congress. Although all residents are counted when district lines are redrawn, normally only eligible voters are included when the new districts are challenged in court under the Voting Rights Act.

"This would be seismic in its impact," said Roberto Ramirez, a political consultant and lawyer who has served as a state assemblyman and chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party. "Both parties would have to develop a different mindset to address policy issues for those residents who have historically not been part of the political process."

Nationally, there are more than 10 million legal immigrants who are not citizens, according to estimates based on census figures. Some are waiting to become citizens, a process that often takes as long as 10 years with the current backlog of applications. Others are not eligible for citizenship because they are here on temporary visas, or have simply not applied.

In New York City, the latest proposals are still being drafted by two council members, Bill Perkins and John C. Liu. Supporters all agree that whatever measure surfaces, it should extend the vote to legal immigrants who are eligible to become citizens. Some would prefer a broader law to include anyone who pays taxes, regardless of immigration status.

There will certainly be opponents. Critics say that giving newcomers the right to vote would undermine the very idea of citizenship.

"Extending voting rights to noncitizens eliminates the last distinction between people who have accepted permanent membership in the American people and those who have not," said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that favors greater restrictions on immigration. "That distinction is important to maintain." Advertisement

The political landscape affecting the proposal has changed in recent years. When the idea was first broached in New York and Washington in the early 1990's, some black community leaders opposed it, seeing immigrants as political and economic competitors. That is no longer true, at least in New York, where a number of black leaders and elected officials say they see the effort as an extension of the civil rights movement. Mr. Perkins, one of the councilmen drafting legislation, is African-American.

A stumbling block was removed this year when lawyers for the City Council reviewed state election law and decided that the city could alter its voting statutes without the approval of the State Legislature, where noncitizen voting measures were introduced without success three times during the 1990's. Nothing in New York State's Constitution forbids voting by noncitizens.

A dozen New York organizations have formally joined a coalition that is actively promoting the cause; they have organized community meetings and held a conference last month at City College in Manhattan. Half are immigrant-based groups like the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and New Immigrant Community Empowerment, and some others have links to organized labor.

Immigrant sponsors have a clear self-interest: their politicians would presumably get new votes, and their communities would get more influence.

Seven or eight other organizations, including three union locals and some nonprofit political and legal groups like Common Cause, say they support the idea as well.

The groups say their optimism is based in part on the Bloomberg administration's general receptiveness to immigrant concerns.

"In the past two years New York has passed strong laws that protect immigrants and give them better access to government, and we are confident New Yorkers will support voting rights once they fully understand the issue," said Bryan Pu-Folkes, the executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, based in Queens.

Noncitizen voting is sometimes dismissed as a left-wing hobbyhorse that can succeed only in overwhelmingly Democratic places, like the towns in Maryland where such laws have passed.

Still, it is not at all clear that the new voters would favor one party over the other, said John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. In their last elections, Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki each drew more than a third of the Hispanic vote in New York City, Mr. Mollenkopf estimated, a strong showing for Republican candidates. Asian voters are even more likely than Hispanic voters to lean Republican, he said.

Whatever the political fallout, some opponents argue that noncitizen voting is bad policy and would remove an incentive to becoming a full United States citizen.

The idea's proponents counter that getting the right to vote could help provide a political education for new immigrants and give them an appetite for voting in presidential elections, which is restricted to citizens by federal law.

"In many ways, this prepares people," said Gouri Sadhwani, the executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project, one of the groups pressing the issue. "They start local, and then they become citizens and vote in national elections."

All of these arguments have long histories. From the founding of the nation until the early 20th century, immigrants had a civic voice that many citizens, including blacks and women, did not. At various times, they voted in 22 states and federal territories (though New York moved early, in 1804, to restrict voting to citizens).

The practice known as "alien suffrage" was less common in the South than other parts of the country, largely because new immigrants tended to be hostile toward slavery. The first article in the Confederate Constitution banned noncitizen voting, said Jamin Raskin, a law professor at American University and a leader of the modern movement to give immigrants the vote.

State legislatures began narrowing their suffrage laws in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as huge waves of immigration from southern and eastern Europe led to greater suspicion about political radicalism among the newcomers.

By 1928, voting at every level had been restricted to United States citizens.

That remained true until 1992, when the town of Takoma Park, Md., passed a measure allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections. Since then, four other towns in Maryland have followed suit.

Two communities in Massachusetts, Cambridge and Amherst, have passed similar measures, but have been blocked from implementing them by the absence of enabling state legislation.

Giving immigrants the right to vote will not be an easy sell, even in New York. Some proponents say they will be content for the moment if they can force people to rethink a fundamental issue.

"Whether or not we pass this law in the next year, this is an idea whose time has come," said Bertha Lewis, the executive director of Acorn, an advocacy group for low-income families that is planning rallies to support the move. "You cannot put this genie back in the bottle."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times of April 8, 2004.

Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from wehaitians.com
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous