Immigrants Voting in US Elections

immigrants_votingAs many of you know, I am an immigrant from Mexico. I am currently in the US under what’s termed as a “Permanent Resident”. Basically, and without getting into immigration technicalities, what it means is that I have most of the same rights and responsibilities of any US citizen. I must pay taxes, all of them including income taxes and social security and I am excluded from some government benefits. Other than the right to cast a vote in an election and subject to being deported if I’m convicted of a crime I can live and work as most US citizens and to the distress of some of my readers I get to comment on the political process.

However, I cannot vote in an election and therefore I do not get a say in who represents my interests.

As a Permanent Resident, I am qualified to become a naturalized US citizen after taking a test on citizenship topics and thus be able to participate in an election. As someone who consistently writes about the political process, it might seem strange to you that I haven’t taken that last step and become a US citizen in order to be authorized to cast a vote. I have given this a lot of thought over the years and I always seem to come to the same conclusion and not take the final step of applying for naturalization.

For many of you it probably seems strange that I’m not running to become a citizen. After all, I live here and I obviously participate in the political process as far as legally permissible. Without getting into an in depth discussion about why I choose not to become a US citizen at this point; that topic is better left for a future detailed post on my thoughts about citizenship. In the meantime, I’ll give you a very simplified and quick explanation.

It basically comes down to my roots and my love for my country. To me citizenship is not just a few words on a piece of paper as I believe it is also an identity to my humanity. I realize that to some of you “love” for my country may seem strange by the fact that I choose to live away from my country. The argument that we leave Mexico, or any other country for that matter, because we hate our respective countries or because the US is a much better place is an oversimplification of the reasons people immigrate.

Sometimes it’s as simple as circumstances, both economic and familial or because as humans we tend to explore. Regardless, not all immigrants want to become citizens of another country. Yes, I know about dual-citizenship however that brings up an issue of allegiances. As alien as it might seem taking up another citizenship is not as easy as it sounds when you consider what citizenship means. And that may be the problem, in that for many citizenship is a means to an end. Sometime in the near future I’ll share with you my personal thoughts on citizenship and why applying for US citizenship is harder than you might think for me. It has everything to do with how I value citizenship and nothing to do with whether I qualify or not much to the consternation of some of you.

However, my inability to cast a vote in an election while writing about the political process and the fact that I’m governed by individuals that I do not have the right to vote into or out of office has had me considering citizenship. In discussions with friends, I have shared with some of them my thoughts that legal immigrants should have a right to vote.

Before you all get too excited let me explain it further. As I understand it, the US political process was founded under the notion of “no taxation without representation”. As a taxpayer, in essence, I am paying taxes without representation. I understand that some would argue that I have chosen to forego the right to vote by not taking the final step of naturalization. Thus, I go back and forth between citizenship on a regular basis.

Yesterday this was brought forth into my consciousness once again through an interesting article I read in The AtlanticImmigrant Voting: Not a Crazy Idea” by Daniel Weeks published on January 8, 2014. The article discusses immigrant trials, tribulations, and the need to cast a vote. If you haven’t read the article I encourage you to do so. (You can find a link in my Twitter account @martinparedes) Interestingly the author based his write up on Mariaelena of Chaparral New Mexico.

Although Weeks spends too much time describing poverty by material things, I believe Weeks does a good job of profiling the plight of marginalized Hispanics that can be found in almost any part of the US. Mariaelena could be anyone in any community in the US. The article delves into the cycle of poverty and how it creates a myriad of problems for individuals and communities. Weeks shows us the trials and tribulations of a couple and their child living in poverty, Mariaelena’s family.

According to Mariaelena, the poverty in Chaparral is caused by the disfranchisement of the residents who are a mix of documented and undocumented immigrants. For the documented, although able to work and live in the US, their lack of citizenship does not allow them to vote and thus their community has no voice before those making decisions for them.

It is easy to state, “all they have to do is become a citizen” to partake of the political process and thus have a voice at the table. Unfortunately, that misses the whole point of the cycle of poverty.

To become a US citizen is an expensive proposition for those looking to feed their families. The need to feed, clothe and house the family outweighs the need to become a citizen. Last time I looked it up it costs about $700 to apply to become a US citizen. Keep in mind that only those who are Permanent Residents qualify for citizenship and thus those applying have already paid significant fees.

Daniel Weeks goes on to detail some interesting statistics about the costs of immigrants in the US, the numbers and their representation in various demographics. According to Weeks; “no court in the United States has ever found non-citizen voting unconstitutional.” I didn’t know that and I take him at his word because I did not research it.

Weeks goes on to write:

For the most of our country’s first 150 years, a majority of American states extended the franchise to resident aliens, and a handful of American cities continue the practice today in local elections. As many as 40 American states and territories extended the right to vote in local, state, and even federal elections to their non-citizen residents between 1776 and the 1920’s.

With the exception of voting, as a Permanent Resident, I have the same rights and responsibilities of a US citizen. Even though I believe that I should have a right to elect who represents me to levy taxes on me and  because of my thoughts on citizenship is the same reason that I acknowledge that non-citizens shouldn’t have a say in all aspects of the country they are guests in.

However, the founding principal of US democracy is based on the notion that taxation without representation should not be valid. So how would I reconcile the apparent contradiction?

I believe that absent US citizenship I shouldn’t have the right to cast a vote on national elections as the federal government sets the general standards of the country. However knowing that a significant cornerstone of the US political system is the rights of states, I believe that I should have a right to participate in the process of who will represent me at the state and local level.

The reason I believe this is that the federal government generally makes the laws that sets the standard of how the US interacts with other countries. As a non-citizen, I shouldn’t have input on that. States, on the other hand focus on the laws that levy local taxes and laws on behavior. Therefore, I should have a say in how I will be governed.

A two-tiered electoral system is not farfetched and in many ways, I believe it supports the foundation of the US ideal of democracy.