Non-citizen voting views differ

April 27, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

Legal immigrants who aren’t yet citizens would be allowed to vote in Boston’s city elections in a controversial new proposal by City Councilor Felix Arroyo.

“People have a right to civic participation and should be allowed to exercise their right to vote as long as they are legal residents in process of becoming citizens,” Arroyo, a JP resident, said in a press statement.

Noting that legal immigrants pay normal taxes, Arroyo likened their lack of the vote to the American Colonial complaint of British “taxation without representation.”

Local City Councilor John Tobin, who opposed a similar idea in 2005, said he’s “skeptical” about Arroyo’s proposal and isn’t supporting it at this time.

Tobin said city officials already represent all city residents, no matter their status.

“I can assure you I’ve never asked anybody, if they ask me for help…if they’re a legal citizen,” Tobin said.

City Councilor Mike Ross, who represents a large portion of Hyde Square, is one of the proposal’s strongest supporters.

“Basically, this is what America is all about,” Ross said. “America is about opportunity and sharing the dream with others. This enhances democracy.”

Arroyo’s proposal would allow Boston’s thousands of legal immigrants to vote in municipal—but not statewide or federal—elections, as long as they could prove they live in Boston legally and pledge that they intend to become citizens soon.

Non-citizen legal immigrants must pay taxes and enjoy many of the rights and responsibilities citizens do, such as access to public schools. The process to become a citizen and gain the vote can take a decade, Arroyo argues.

“This is an enormous segment of the population who are paying taxes, who are enlisting in the Army, who are enrolling their kids in the school system, who are relying on the police,” Ross said. “They should have a role in decision-making. I think their input could only help.”

But, Tobin said, the proposal has fairness questions of its own.

“You’re going to tell me you’re going to let some residents vote for their city councilor, but not for their state rep?” he asked, noting that legal immigrants still couldn’t vote for state or federal offices.

And regarding the pledge to apply for citizenship, Tobin said, “I don’t know how you prove that.”

Non-citizen voting was a minor issue in Tobin’s successful 2005 re-election campaign, where his opponent supported the idea even for undocumented immigrants.

“The right to vote is one of the privileges we’re given as part of citizenship,” Tobin said at the time about that idea of letting both documented and undocumented immigrants vote. “That’s getting into an area we don’t want to get into.”

But, Tobin said, his mind isn’t closed to Arroyo’s more moderate proposal. “I’m open to the idea, but he’s going to have to convince me,” Tobin said.

There’s also a question of political momentum. Supporters note that Cambridge and Amherst have passed non-citizen voting proposals. Opponents point out that those proposals are dead in the water at the State House, whose approval is required to enact them. Internationally, at least 20 countries allow some form of non-citizen voting, usually at the local level, according
to the Migration Policy Institute.

“You could vote for it and accept the accolades, knowing full well you were handing it to the Legislature and putting it on their plate,” Tobin said.

The proposal naturally leads councilors to thoughts of their own immigrant heritages.

Arroyo hails from Puerto Rico, a US territory whose citizens controversially have no vote in US federal elections. He has been a regular supporter of immigrant rights.

Ross’s father came to the US after surviving the Holocaust. Ross predicts that prohibiting legal immigrants from voting will one day look unjust and backward.

“I believe this is not completely different from the right to vote that was given to women in relatively recent history, as well as the right to vote that was given to black people,” Ross said.

“My grandparents were from Ireland on my father’s side,” Tobin said. “We’re all from immigrants.”

He noted that new immigrants gain great satisfaction when they earn citizenship and its rights and responsibilities.

“I know how proud people are, when they become citizens, to cast a vote,” Tobin said.

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