A proposal to allow green card holders in Boston the ability to vote in municipal elections could have far-reaching effects for nearly half of the city’s 45,000 Asian Americans, say local experts and office holders.
“It would be huge,” said Paul Watanabe of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Just under half of all Asian Americans in Boston are non-citizens, according to a 2004 report—“Enabling the Asian American Electorate”—that Watanabe co-authored. If non-citizen permanent residents were allowed to vote, Watanabe estimated that it could potentially increase the Asian American electorate in Boston by more than 20,000.
“I think it would be the most significant expansion of the franchise in the city of Boston since the passage of women’s suffrage. Its impact would be substantial,” he said. Watanabe said he’s been advocating for such a proposal for the past decade. Similar measures have been approved by other local governments including Amherst, Cambridge, and Newton, but all are pending state approval.
Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon, who was born in Korea, said he feels it would be fair to those who pay city taxes and use city services to be able to vote in municipal elections.
“This would be a good thing for city government because such a large part of the people that we serve in Boston are legal immigrants,” said Yoon, who co-sponsored Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo’s home rule petition allowing green card holders the ability to vote. “Since representation is the essence of democracy, I think city government would actually do its job better if their voices were represented.”
In 2004, more than one in four Boston residents were born outside the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Amy Mah Sangiolo, an alderman in Newton, said she believes that if the measure passes, Asian Americans would have a greater voice in issues affecting them locally in Chinatown, such as land use and development.
“It’s great,” she said of the proposal, which she said would be following the lead of Newton.
Some, however, strongly reject the idea of allowing permanent residents the ability to vote in any elections.
“We are opposed to any measure that allows people who are not citizens of the United State to participate in our democracy. That is a right and privilege of citizenship,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that promotes restricting immigration and stopping illegal immigration.
“It dilutes the value of citizenship. If people who have not made a full-fledged commitment to this country are entitled to the same voice in this democracy, then what really is the value of being a citizen?” said Mehlman.
But Councilor Arroyo, who co-sponsored the measure, argues that his proposal would encourage immigrants to become citizens because it would give them only a limited ability to vote. He also said that immigrants who pay taxes would acquire representation.
“We’re talking about a big population that pays the taxes but does not vote. When we look at it from that perspective, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. In addition, he said, immigrants would have to sign statements that they would pursue citizenship if they are allowed to vote in the city elections.
“But we are not a nation of taxpayers,” said Mehlman. “It is a nation of citizen people who have made a higher level of commitment.” He said that having immigrants sign statements that they would apply for citizenship would be meaningless because they would not likely be binding.
“If you come here legally and have a green card, it isn’t all that onerous to become a citizen of the United States. There’s a five-year waiting period in which you are required to show that you are somebody of high character, stay out of trouble and do all the things you are supposed to do, and at the end of the five years, you can apply to become a citizen. Then you are free to participate not only in local elections but in any election you want to vote in.”
He added: “They understood that when they came here that there were certain conditions. Coming to the United States as a legal immigrant— it’s a conditional bargain.” It’s still unclear how the measure will go over in the Boston City Council. Even if approved by the council, the bill would require final approval by the state’s Legislature.
Yoon called the proposal “a major uphill battle.
“It would only come into effect if the entire state Legislature agreed with our proposal. So this is the beginning of a long-term effort,” he said. After Arroyo co-filed the measure to allow permanent U.S. residents the ability to vote in city elections, Salvatore LaMattina, another city councilor, proposed that the city should determine whether it is working hard enough to promote citizenship.
LaMattina opposes Arroyo’s plan and said that “we need to promote citizenship; if you want to empower new immigrants that come to this country, you empower them by letting them become citizens.” Still, Arroyo said last week that he has five of the needed seven councilors in support of the proposal. Councilors Charles Yancey, Chuck Turner, and Michael Ross have so far publicly endorsed the proposal, in addition to Yoon and Arroyo.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino has not yet decided, said his spokesperson. At-large councilor Michael Flaherty said: “I’m keeping an open mind,” and that he wants to learn more about the matter before taking a position. Arroyo hopes to hold a hearing on the proposal by June.
—M. Thang contributed to this story.
Adam Smith is English editor of the Boston-based Sampan, New England’s only Chinese-English newspaper, published since 1972 by the Asian American Civic Association of Boston.