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By Chaleampon Ritthichai
Should Non-Citizens Be Allowed to Vote?
In 1997 Brooklyn Assembly member Vito Lopez did something that some people thought was crazy. He introduced a bill in the New York State Legislature that would permit legal immigrants to vote without first becoming U.S. citizens. The bill, not surprisingly, was defeated.
But his idea is no longer so crazy and Assembly member Lopez will soon reintroduce it. He and other supporters of such legislation point out that what they are advocating is not a break with tradition; it's a continuation of it.
In many parts of the country, including New York, non-citizens had the right to vote up until the early 1900s.
Now with the immigrant population at an all time high in New York City, some advocacy groups and politicians believe that New York should grant non-citizen immigrants the right to vote once again.
"If you go back to the 1800s, you just had to be a legal resident. You didn't have to be born here or be a citizen to vote," said Lopez, who plans to reintroduce the bill this December.
Margaret Fung, an Executive Director of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, "They should have a voice about how decisions are made, especially on the neighborhood level where issues affect them directly."
The federal government defers to the state the right to determine who is eligible to vote. "Some people think the state legislature doesn't have the right to set election rules. But we do," Lopez said. "Within the state jurisdiction we have the right to allow legal residents to vote."
According to Michael Jones-Correa, an associate professor of Government at Cornell University, some states allowed immigrants to vote in local, state and national elections as late as the 1920s. The major change occurred when naturalization was moved from the state to the federal level, in part to fight party machines and corruption that went along with the incorporation of immigrants into the political process.
Anti-immigrant sentiment ran high during World War I and many restrictions were placed on immigrants. Voting rights for non-citizens were eliminated.
Today, one third of New Yorkers are foreign-born. Many immigrant advocates argue that it is undemocratic to disfranchise thousands of New Yorkers who just happen to be immigrants.
"It's problematic for any democratic society to have a large portion of its population outside of political participation," said Professor Jones-Correa. "It undermines democracy."
But critics point out that legal immigrants can simply apply for citizenship. "It's a relatively easy process. Immigrants should become citizens and then vote," said Columbia University Professor Rodolfo de la Garza. "Otherwise you create the possibility of people voting who have no stake in the society."
To become a U.S. citizen, an immigrant has to be a legal permanent resident -- a green card holder -- for at least five years, speak, read, write and understand ordinary English words and phrases, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and principles of government, and, among other things, wait.
"I had to wait for seven years before I became a citizen," said Soon Jo Baik. "And that came after four years of waiting for my green card."
More than 300,000 applications for citizenship have been piling up at the Immigration and Naturalization Service office for years and only now are being reviewed, said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger
"If you're going to say that the formal status of citizenship is really what matters, then at the very least, you have to make that process easier and quicker for people," said Professor Jones-Correa.
While agreeing that immigrants should become citizens if they are eligible, Fung argued that within that five or more year period, immigrants are affected by government policy but not allowed to participate in the civic process.
"These people should not be disfranchised. If you're paying taxes, you should be able to vote," Fung said. According to the Urban Institute, immigrants pay $90 billion annually in federal, state and local taxes.
However, after September 11 there is a backlash against immigrants and immigration policy. The question of non-citizen voting rights is less urgent. "I don't think it's a good thing to have immigrants voting immediately," said de la Garza. "Allowing immigrants to vote at this time would just not fly at all."
Nonetheless, Lopez says he is pushing ahead with his bill. "It's hard to sell at anytime not just after 9/11. But I believe that we have broad support from people and many advocacy groups," Lopez said.
If this bill became law, Lopez estimated that at least 300,000 immigrants in New York would register to vote and become a tremendous voting bloc.
"I can see that [passing the law] might be possible," Jones-Correa said, "But it certainly won't be done out of the goodness of people's hearts. They'll be doing it when there's a considerable political pressure to make it happen."
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