Members of the non-citizen community in New York City are reacting to new legislation granting them the right to vote in local elections – the city’s first municipal vote by non-citizens in the United States.
“I want the system to work, but the system’s going to work only if enough people are voting, so it’s going to be very hard if just one person votes,” said Usman Raza, a resident of Brooklyn.
The push for the right to vote for non-citizens like Raza represents a long-overdue step toward allowing them to participate equally in New York City’s democratic process.
New York voted for women to be eligible to vote in 1870, but at the time, immigrants were forced to wait a decade after settling in the US before the vote became available.
Women were not permitted to vote for a century after suffrage was granted to white males in 1920, but this approval was given to ethnic groups at a later date.
Resident Maria Nerud-Pereira, from Cuba, described the fear that motivated her to apply for citizenship as she grew up: “They were looking at you like a criminal, like an alien, like some terrorists because there was no point of us putting you in this country because they wouldn’t let you vote because they thought that you were going to change American society,” she said.
Neroud-Pereira pointed out that she and her family are now among those holding the vote in New York City.
For many immigrant communities, such as the 1.3 million who immigrated to the US from Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the right to vote has represented both an economic opportunity and a political aspiration.
“The Latinos in the United States are being forgotten in some ways because, in other ways, they are being taken for granted. The one thing we [Latinos] want is the opportunity to vote and be heard, to make our feelings heard,” says senior co-chairwoman of the City Council’s committee on immigration, Jo Ann Golden.
Compounding the call for Latino votes is the high number of births in New York City from residents of these countries: for the first time, more people were born in the city to foreign-born parents than to native-born citizens.
Yet though citywide officials are scrambling to find ways to boost voting rights for non-citizens, just as the 2018 elections are about to begin, the issue remains highly contentious in some quarters.
Republican mayoral candidate Nicole Malliotakis has raised concerns about immigrants voting in elections, and she voted against the same measure in the assembly.
“I don’t want a ‘white Savior Effect,'” Malliotakis told members of the media recently. “If a Mexican immigrant comes here, good, he’s here, I say welcome to the United States of America, but if you’re a criminal or you’re the terrorist, we’re not going to necessarily allow you to participate in democracy in this country.”
The argument to put more immigrants into New York City elective offices was part of the push to expand New York’s mayoral race this year to include more candidates beyond the usual candidates, such as Republican billionaire John Catsimatidis and Democratic US Rep. Dan Donovan.
The system of citywide local elections in New York City serves as a valuable experiment in mass democracy, according to veterans of civil rights campaigns in New York City.
“It’s really about democracy in action, trying to hold leaders accountable in the city, so that if they want to build equality with people of colour and all the communities that were supposed to have been excluded from the political system, then the people have an opportunity to participate,” says City Councilmember Luis Sepulveda.
For many immigrants who came to New York to provide their children an opportunity to reach the American dream, voting plays a vital role in social mobility, and gives voice to those communities.
“And if they do not have it, they want to get it so that they get a voice in government, so that they can change things,” said Hector Jimenez, a resident of Brooklyn, who migrated to the US from Mexico in 1979.
“I think the new legislation is good, it’s good to have a say in who represents me as a borough resident.”
For many immigrants like him, the right to vote is an asset for the United States as well as for New York City.
“It’s going to help. It is going to help, because it’s going to give people more rights and power to be able