Citizenship and Voting
by Michael Huang
Aug 25, 2003
Race and Citizenship Status in the Voting Age Population
(New York City, 2000)
Source: 2000 Census 1% Public Use Microdata Sample
Tejeda grew up in Washington Heights, graduated from the Fashion Industries High School in Manhattan, and when Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke at his funeral, the mayor said, "We are proud he was a citizen of New York."
But Tejeda, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was not a legal citizen of the United States. And while he was willing to fight and die for his country, he could not vote in it.
Over a million New York adults are in the same situation. In recent years, some immigrant rights advocates and politicians have been quietly working to win voting rights for non-citizens.
This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Charter Commission will reportedly formally announce its intention to ask Governor George Pataki and the New York State Legislature to allow green-card holders who live in New York to vote in local elections.
In the New York State Assembly, there is pending legislation that would extend the right to vote to non-citizens who have acquired permanent status and have applied for citizenship.
Proponents argue that immigrants have jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to society and should be allowed to elect their local representatives. Opponents counter that legal citizenship is essential to understanding and participating in democracy.
But for all of the debate, non-citizen voting is not a new idea in New York City. Until this year when the city's education system was reorganized, immigrants with children in the city schools could vote in local school board elections, whether or not they were legal citizens of the United States.
If non-citizen voting was extended to other local offices such as district leader, City Council, and mayor, experts say, it could radically alter politics and even government in New York.
ARGUMENT FOR NON-CITIZEN VOTING
Proponents of non-citizen voting rights argue that immigrants share many of the same responsibilities of citizens and should be given the right to vote. Immigrants pay taxes, send their children to public schools, and can even serve in the U.S. military. Nationally, 37,000 members of the active-duty military - nearly three percent - are non-citizens.
"Taxes are being withheld from [non-citizen] salaries to support city services," said Margaret Fung of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
Local government would be more representative of the city, advocates claim, if a million non-citizen New Yorkers could elect their representatives. It was not until 2001 when term limits kicked out many long time incumbents in New York City, that the first Asian American was elected to office, even though Asians comprise 10 percent of the city's population.
It can also often take a decade or more for legal residents to be granted citizenship because of a cumbersome naturalization process.
"Most immigrants want to become citizens," said Borough of Manhattan Community College Professor Ronald Hayduk, who has written extensively on the subject of citizenship and voting rights. "It's just that it takes forever."
Another argument is that the notion of citizenship has been fluid throughout U.S. history.
"For a long time the whole process of becoming a citizen was in local hands and had much less bureaucracy than it does now," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. "A local judge could declare you a citizen if you'd lived here for five years and kept yourself out of police trouble."
Other areas of the country, such as Takoma Park, Maryland and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have already passed measures allowing non-citizens to vote.
ARGUMENT AGAINST NON-CITIZEN VOTING
Opponents argue that immigrants already have a way to vote - by becoming a citizen.
To become a legal U.S. citizen, a person has to be a legal permanent resident for at least five years. He or she must also be able to speak, read, and write in English, and demonstrate an understanding of U.S. history and government.
These things are essential, say opponents of extending voting rights, to understanding and participating in the democratic process. "There are certain rights and privileges that come with being a U.S. citizen - and the right to vote is central," said Republican City Councilmember James Oddo.
If voting rights were offered to those who have not taken the time or effort to earn citizenship, it would undermine the significance of voting and what it means to be an American.
"People who are here for three years or five years and who are given the right to vote would have little incentive to go through with the naturalization process," said Stanley Renshon, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, who has authored a book entitled "The 50 Percent American: National Identity in a Dangerous Age."
Renshon also rejects the notion that non-citizens are not benefiting from paying taxes. "The idea that they pay taxes but are getting nothing for it is an absurd affront," he said. "Obviously there are benefits in coming to this country and that is why people do it."
Some opponents acknowledge that while the citizenship process is imperfect, giving people the right to vote is not part of the solution.
And there are efforts to speed up the process of becoming a citizen for military personnel, who have demonstrated their commitment to the country. Spurred by the deaths of 10 immigrant soldiers like Riayan Tejeda, Congress recently passed a bill to reduce the time from three years to one year that an immigrant member of the military must wait to become a U.S. citizen.
HISTORY OF CITIZENSHIP AND VOTING IN NYC
Initially, the right to vote in the United States was not based on national citizenship, but on race, gender, and the ability to pay taxes.
In 1777, the New York State Constitution allowed men to vote if they owned twenty-pound freeholds, paid two pounds a year in rent, or had been admitted as freemen of New York City or Albany.
New York was one of the first states in the nation to require U.S. citizenship in order to vote, according to Hayduk. In 1804, the state's election law was changed to require national citizenship, though this requirement was never explicitly included in the state constitution. Most other states did not require citizenship until around World War I.
The decision to tie voting rights to citizenship, argues Hayduk, resulted from rising patriotism during wars, but also a general fear of immigration and its effects on the political system.
"Mass immigration contributed to controversy about the impacts of immigrants on everything from labor markets and wages, crime and public morals, electoral outcomes and public spending," said Hayduk, "to notions of race, ethnic and national identity."
In recent years, lawmakers in Albany have introduced legislation that would speed the process of non-citizen voting. In 1997, Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez introduced legislation to give non-citizens the right to vote if they lived in the state for five years. That bill was defeated, but two subsequent bills were also introduced.
This year, New York State Assemblyman Nick Perry, an immigrant from Jamaica, introduced a bill that would extend voting rights to permanent residents who have lived in New York State for at least three years and have filed an application for citizenship. He first introduced the bill in 1993 and says lawmakers must continue to push the issue.
"I am hopeful at some point the anti-immigrant sentiment will be overcome by realization of the fact that immigrants are builders and part of the American foundations," Perry said.
COMMUNITY SCHOOL BOARDS - A CASE STUDY
In recent years, non-citizens have played an important role in the local political process.
Between 1969 and 2003, non-citizens who had children in public schools were able to vote in elections for members of community school boards. The school boards were eliminated in 2003 as part of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reform of the education system.
Community school boards were often criticized for being ineffective and overly political and voter turnout was low. But proponents of extending voting rights to immigrants say that the problems of local school governance had nothing to do with who was voting.
The local school boards were also more ethnically diverse than any other branch of government in New York; in 1999, for example, 15 Asian Americans were elected to the 32 school boards.
"Non-citizens parents proved that people who have a stake will participate," said Hayduk. "Community school boards were not perfect, but in terms of their power, they selected superintendents and allocated funds - things that matter. They were symbolically, if not substantially, important."
CHANGING THE CITY
If non-citizens were given the right to vote, politics and government in New York no doubt would change.
"Of the roughly 5.5 million people who are of voting age in New York City, about a million are non-citizens," said John Mollenkopf. "Elected officials would pay a lot more attention to the needs of groups they can now safely ignore."
The biggest difference would come for Dominicans and Chinese immigrants, who currently comprise the largest percentage of non-citizens adults in New York. (See chart for citizenship by race.)
And issues like bilingual education, health care, access to city services, and even the budget process would change.
"I think the question is not necessarily that you will get all the services that immigrants might prefer," said Margaret Fung, "but the point is that they would have a voice, so that when the budget is being adopted that at least there would be some consideration of some of the needs of immigrants."
The recommendation from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Charter Commission to allow non-citizen voting will be met with opposition from Republican lawmakers in the city and state.
"I think it is becoming more and more apparent that the Charter Commission is a political tool for a political agenda," said Republican City Councilmember James Oddo. "This is a calculated position to curry favor with a particular group."
Some Democratic lawmakers are also suspicious because non-citizen voting is being tied to the commission's other goal of instituting non-partisian elections and eliminating party primaries, an idea that most Democrats oppose.
"This is a hypocritical action," said Lower East Side Councilmember Margarita Lopez. "Something as serious as voting rights should not be matched up with anything else."
There are also legal questions about the issue since the state election law says U.S. citizenship is a voting requirment, but the New York State Constitution does not.
Charter Commission Chair Frank Macchiarola reportedly has already approached the mayor's office and the City Council about working to pass the measure.
"The commission thinks indeed that voting by non-citizens would go to the heart of the objectives of the commission, which is to increase access and participation with local government across the board for all New Yorkers," a spokesman said.
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