Let non-citizens vote in local elections if they can provide application proof

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Pro-immigrant activists in New York City, California, Washington, D.C., and in several smaller towns in the Northeast are pushing to let noncitizens vote in local elections. They cite precedent. Noncitizens vote in a handful of towns in Maryland. And up until the 1920s, noncitizens could vote in more than 20 states.

Nonsense. Only people who make the commitment to become U.S. citizens should have the right to vote in this country.

Some advocates look at it as a kind of training, “an ideal way to prepare them for the responsibilities of citizenship,” as Ron Hayduk and Michele Wucker argued in the New York Daily News. It’s an empty argument. Nobody needs practice voting. Immigrants can follow the issues, and when they become citizens they can go out and vote. It’s that easy.

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Others take more extreme positions: If noncitizens don’t get the vote, claims a study issued last year by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, “we will be witnessing the transformation of our cherished democratic institutions into a de facto political apartheid.”

Apartheid? This kind of idiocy gives fresh ammunition to extremists on the right who seek to paint all Hispanics as radical left-wing rabble-rousers.

I never imagined I would ever quote Mark Krikorian, head of the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies. Yet I quote him here to show how right he is about this one issue: “Our political institutions … ought to be reserved for the American people — citizens either by birth or by choice, joined in the common goal of forming a more perfect union,” Krikorian wrote recently. “Citizenship is not barred to anyone for reasons of race, religion or national origin.”

Fortunately, it’s not only anti-immigrant types who oppose giving noncitizens the vote. Last month New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg came out against it, too. And the liberal editorial page of The New York Times argued, “Extending the most important benefits of citizenship to those who still hold their first allegiance to another country seems counterproductive.”

Some of those who favor granting noncitizens the right to vote have one defensible point, however. Although the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services claims it is “continuing to modernize and improve the naturalization process and would like to decrease the time it takes to an average of 6 months,” the actual wait is anywhere from two to 10 years, depending on the local office.

Two years of waiting is barely acceptable, and a full decade, on top of the minimum five years of legal residence required before someone can even become a citizen, is absurd.

One way to get around this abuse of patience: Let noncitizens vote in local elections — and local elections only — if they can show they applied for citizenship two years earlier but are still caught in red tape. That shows they have made the commitment to this nation even if they are not yet citizens — through no fault of their own.

Cuban-born Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.