EDITOR’S NOTE: Listen to an audio version of this story at LatinoUSA.com.
Lucia Aguilar has been living in New York City since she was 3 years old. In her late 30s now, she works at a nonprofit in East Harlem, where, for the last 16 years, she’s helped manage a community food bank. She has a green card at this point, but she still has years to wait until she can apply for citizenship.
“Growing up here, going to school, you learn about the democratic system, and I believe in it and that we all have a say when we vote,” Aguilar told me.
But despite being a New Yorker through and through, she simply doesn’t have the same say in the political direction of her city as many of her neighbors. As one of nearly 1 million documented noncitizens in New York City, Aguilar is not eligible to vote in city elections. “I wasn’t born in the United States, but, you know, I’m a New Yorker at heart, and I wish I could participate in these events.”
A bill now before the New York City legislature is set to offer noncitizen residents like Aguilar a chance to participate in city politics. The bill, “Our City, Our Vote,” would allow noncitizens with work authorization—people with green cards, DACA protection, or Temporary Protected Status—to vote in all New York City municipal elections, giving them a voice in who gets elected to the City Council, as public advocate, even to the mayor’s office. If passed, it will bring the largest addition of eligible voters since the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 half a century ago. The challenge for advocates now is to convince lawmakers that the move is right for the city, and for its democracy.
The United States is slogging through a contradictory era for voting rights. Despite a devastating pandemic, turnout in the 2020 election was the highest we’ve seen in more than a century. The results of that vote, however, despite no evidence of significant fraud, were doubted and denied, and remain subject to drawn-out controversy. On January 6, thousands of people, either claiming fraud or simply desperate for different results, stormed the Capitol building, looting offices, waving the Confederate flag, and crying for politicians’ heads to roll.
In the months following that deadly insurrection, revolts against the vote, and seemingly against democracy itself, have taken a quieter form. Republican-led state legislators have proposed and enacted laws to severely restrict voting access, in barely concealed attempts to suppress the votes of citizens of color. The moves limit how, where, and when people can cast a ballot. Overall, nearly 400 voter suppression bills have been proposed in 49 states this year, part of a tide of anti-voting bills that first-term Georgia Senator Rafael Warnock has called “Jim Crow 2021.”
“We may be tempted to dissect these bills, as if analyzing them piece by piece makes them more rational,” Warnock said in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights. “But that narrow analysis only obscures the larger, unmistakable picture: This is a full-fledged assault on voting rights, unlike anything we’ve seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
In Washington, Democrats’ efforts to push through a federal voting rights bill seem to have stalled, and in early July the Supreme Court gave its stamp of approval to two of Arizona’s voter suppression measures. All of which makes New York’s proposed municipal voting shake-up an outlier in the voting rights landscape, but one that prompts some basic questions about democracy: Who are counted as the people when the people supposedly rule? What happens to a government of and for the people when millions are left out of key decisions? What about that rallying cry of the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation,” when so many in this country are taxed and have zero say in who represents them?
Paul Westrick, the senior manager of democracy policy with the New York Immigration Coalition, one of over 60 organizational backers of the New York City bill, explained to me why they are pushing for the proposal. “While we live in a democracy, we have 1 million New Yorkers who can’t vote in their local elections for mayor, for City Council, or for the folks who are making policy and budget decisions that affect their lives on a day-to-day basis,” Westrick said. “So these are residents of our city who live here, work here, go to school here. They are raising families here. They are paying taxes here and they deserve to have a say in the direction of our city.”
Ydanis Rodriguez, who sponsored the most recent iteration of the Our City, Our Vote bill, says that if the city passes the bill, it would be “empowering most New Yorkers to take control of who are the leaders, and those leaders will be accountable.” At its most basic level, Rodriguez told me, “the consequence is that we’re going to be expanding voting rights.”
Noncitizen New York residents come from all over the world, with the largest foreign-born populations coming from the Dominican Republic, China, and Mexico. Immigrant New Yorkers, both naturalized citizens and noncitizens, pay an estimated $10 billion of taxes a year. Noncitizens contribute nearly $3 billion into that total. The nearly 1 million documented noncitizen New Yorkers are part of the 15 or so million documented noncitizens in this country as a whole, not to mention the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants forced to live even further in the shadows in this country.
New York’s bill comes at a critical time. Especially over the past year, the city’s reliance on immigrant workers has been profoundly and painfully underscored. As the pandemic gripped New York in 2020, immigrant workers were critical in holding the city together—keeping New Yorkers fed, caring for the sick, and keeping the city itself alive. And yet they also suffered the worst of the pandemic. One study found that 75 percent of New York immigrants lost their jobs in the initial months of the pandemic, compared to an overall high unemployment rate of over 15 percent in April of 2020. Immigrants also suffered more poverty and food insecurity because of the pandemic. An article from the Journal of the American Medical Association that focused on the Bronx, a heavily immigrant New York City borough, found the highest rates of Covid-19 diagnoses and deaths during the spring of 2020 in the city. The article stated, “Immigrant patients are highly susceptible to the combination of elevated rates of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, misinformation about its transmission and disease course, and hesitancy to access care.”
About half of all frontline workers in New York are immigrants. One in five of those frontline workers is a noncitizen. Westrick states the issue clearly: “This is a population of folks that we have classified as essential to our city. New York City cannot run without them. So how can we ask these New Yorkers to quite literally risk their lives, to keep us healthy and to keep this city running while also denying them the right to vote in how their taxes are spent and who represents them in government?”
Hina Naveed is a registered nurse, a recent law graduate from CUNY School of Law, and served as the campaign manager for Cesar Vargas, a candidate for Staten Island Borough president this year. (Vargas lost the Democratic primary in June.) Like Aguilar, she’s also a noncitizen, which has shaped her political commitments. “The fight for justice and dignity for undocumented immigrants has been something that I’ve been very passionate about for a very long time,” Naveed told me. “I am a DACA recipient, which means I’m undocumented. I have a work authorization that I have to renew every two years that allows me to work to pay taxes, but doesn’t give me a path to citizenship. And so what that has essentially boiled down to for me and millions of undocumented immigrants is taxation without representation.”
Our City, Our Vote would give people like Naveed and Aguilar the chance to go to the polls to hold accountable the politicians who make decisions over their lives and who spend their tax dollars. It’s also, according to supporters, a down payment on the basic health of the city, a reaffirmation of the idea of democracy.
“The more folks who are in the process participating in our democracy, the better it is for the entire city,” Westrick said. “This is an opportunity for New York City to really lead the country and lead the conversation in protecting and expanding voting rights.”
Granting noncitizens the right to vote may sound like a radical project, and it certainly attracts its critics, but it has a long history in this country, and isn’t so rare in other parts of the world either. A number of US cities already let noncitizens cast the ballot.
Long before Jamie Raskin, the Maryland representative tapped to lead former President Trump’s second impeachment trial, entered politics, he wrote an influential white paper that was passed around voting rights advocates circles. It was a key resource in implementing noncitizen voting rights in Takoma Park, Md. Noncitizens in Takoma Park have been voting in municipal elections since the 1990s, without an uproar or anyone’s raising an objection. In fact, Maryland is the state with the most cities—nine in total—that allow noncitizens to vote. Two cities in Vermont and San Francisco now also allow foreign residents to vote in some local elections.
“For most of American history, states granted voting rights at the local level to noncitizens,” Raskin explained to me. “Prior to the Civil War, pro-slavery forces tried to destroy noncitizen voting because immigrants overwhelmingly opposed slavery, but Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party vigorously defended the practice of extending suffrage rights to permanent residents who were on the pathway to citizenship. The Republicans made the compelling argument that we all benefit when everyone participates in their communities. That argument is still compelling today.”
One of the global experts on noncitizen voting rights, Ron Hayduk, the former coordinator of New York City Voter Assistance Commission and the author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States, explained, “Most Americans are very surprised to learn that noncitizen voting or immigrant voting is older than the country itself. Many of the early colonies allowed immigrants to vote and run for office, and they did.”
When Congress created new territories, it used the lure of noncitizen voting to attract settlers. And when those territories became states, it kept that practice intact. In the wake of the Civil War, after the Reconstruction Amendments—the 13th, 14th, and 15th—abolished slavery and guaranteed equal protection of the laws and the right to vote, white politicians and citizens, particularly in the South, used poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and brash violence to try to scare Black people away from the voting booth. But even amid this backlash, the 1874 Supreme Court case Minor v. Happersett upheld the states’ rights to implement their own voting regulations, even if they were extending them to noncitizens.
But in the 20th century, as women were granted the right to vote in 1920, and Black Americans were finally guaranteed equal access to the franchise with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, noncitizens were steadily losing ground. States that had allowed noncitizen voting rolled back those rights, so that by 1926 no state allowed noncitizens to vote in statewide elections. In 1996, the draconian Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made it a federal offense for noncitizens to vote in federal elections.
Meanwhile, parts of Europe and Latin America have extended voting rights to noncitizens. “You can move to Ireland and in six months vote in national elections,” Hayduk told me. “And they’ve seen, you know, a significant turnout to good effect. There’s a number of studies that have shown how when immigrants participate, there’s increases in and improvements in education policy and outcomes.”
Many basic conceptions of political equality are thrown out the window when it comes to immigrants. You can pay taxes, serve in the military, own property, go to school, be a working and contributing and fully engaged member of the community, and yet you can be arrested by immigration authorities while picking your kid up from school, in many states you might not be able to legally drive, and in almost all cities you can’t even vote for your City Council representative.
“The short punch line is, you know, it’s basically about inclusion,” Hayduk said to me, regarding New York’s bill. “It’s about fairness.”
Another supporter of the bill is Tiffany Cabán, a former public defender who captured the nation’s attention as part of a new progressive approach to the position of district attorney when she ran for Queens DA in 2019. (She lost that election by fewer than a hundred votes.) I spoke with her in June, days before the New York City primary in which she was running for a seat on the City Council (she won), and asked if she thinks about how things may have turned out differently in her race for DA if noncitizens had been able to vote.
“I think about it all the time,” Cabán said. “Mostly I think about how we have systematically disenfranchised Black and brown voters through criminalization. That we have taken away the right to vote. And I have consistently said that if we re-enfranchised every person…we could literally turn every single election in the country, full stop.”
Nationally, the New York City bill could also set an example. As Cabán explained, it could be “scaled and adopted at state and federal levels.”
That’s no doubt about why the idea has many detractors on the right. Stanley Renshon, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, talked to me about why he’s wary about extending voting rights to noncitizens. “When people jump the line and they are given an incentive to do it and a reward for doing it, it undermines faith in the system as a whole. And that’s a very big and important issue for America as a country,” Renshon said. Essentially, he worried that noncitizens wouldn’t have the knowledge of their communities to be able to make informed decisions, and he considered that there are other ways besides voting in which noncitizens can be politically engaged.
It’s certainly true that adding nearly a million potential voters to a city with five-plus million registered voters is no small thing. It’s hard to know how city politics might be shaken up. Right now, the bill has received support from a supermajority of legislators on the City Council, which means the bill must come up for a vote this session. Given the at least professed support, advocates are hopeful it would pass. It would then be sent to the mayor for signing.
On a hot day this June, with the 7 train clanking overhead, street vendors hawking tacos, backpacks, and Tupperware sets in the background, about 100 or so politicians and supporters gathered in Corona Plaza, Queens, to promote the bill as it wends its way through the City Council. With over 1 million immigrants, Queens is the most diverse of New York City’s five boroughs, and supporters at the rally were enthusiastic about the bill’s potential to reshape their lives, and their city.
Dolma Lama, who identified herself as “a community organizer, community volunteer, and a community lover,” told me she was representing the New York City Nepali community. “This bill is very important to us because we have about 45,000 documented people who are not eligible to vote just because they do not have a citizenship,” Lama said.
Catalina Cruz, a state assemblywoman who came to the United States undocumented, told me that this bill was personal for her: “I used to not feel like my voice counted. And I want my neighbors to feel respected.”
When I asked her what would change if the bill became law, she struck an enthusiastic tone. “We could see more Dreamers in office. We could see more formally undocumented people who now have the power in office. We could see more immigrants in office. We could see more people that are Black and brown in office. We could see more people who believe that all of us deserve a right to have our voice respected.”