By Howard Husock,
The New York City Council’s recent decision to give some 800,000 noncitizens the right to vote might, on the surface, seem just and appropriate. After all, those legal city residents can be said to endure (high) taxation without representation. But this stark departure from historical precedent has a number of serious flaws for those who truly believe in “e pluribus unum” – a nation whose voters share essential civic ideals.
As a practical matter, the council action allows these new voters, such as illegal immigrants, to jump the line of those who have waited for years to prepare to become citizens. That’s a process that takes up to three years for those who have already qualified for the “green card” held by legal immigrants. Becoming a citizen requires one to pay a $725 fee and pass a 100-question citizenship test – a process designed to make sure new voters are exposed to basic American history and principles.
The test that the council is allowing new voters to skip is not some formality. It tests knowledge with which any American voter should be familiar. First, it’s offered only in English – which any immigrant with hopes of achieving economic success will need to master and which binds the nation together culturally. Just as important, however, is the content of the test. The council apparently feels it’s not important for voters to know about the Bill of Rights; that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land; to be able to define freedom of religion; to know what the branches of government are; or the name of their state capital.
There’s a lot more than what is listed above. Try taking the test yourself or checking to see if your high school-age child can pass. The point is this: The citizenship test is not voter suppression. It’s crucial basic preparation for one to become an informed voter.
It also includes what is still called an oath of allegiance. The language is powerful and includes a pledge not unlike that which a new president swears “that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic (and) that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” In moving naturalization ceremonies held regularly across the country, new citizens raise their hands to take an oath, having studied and saved for the chance to do so. The New York City Council is telling them it wasn’t necessary, devaluing their achievement.
The right course of action for local government – and civil society community groups, as well – is to encourage legal immigrants to become citizens. That’s what New York’s famed settlement houses did during our last great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. Those local leaders understood that shared political principles – as distinct from political views on any given issue – are essential for a functioning American democracy. One practical step is to lower the cost of the citizenship test. Asking a married couple to pay almost $1,500 to become American citizens is a lot to ask of those making e-bike deliveries or flipping burgers.
What’s more, citizenship will allow for something the city council cannot: the right to vote in federal elections. As matters stand, congressional districts are drawn based on the number of residents, not the number of legal votes. That means that districts such as that of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have far fewer voters – and she receives far fewer votes – than typical Republican districts with fewer immigrants. This truly is taxation without representation. These new immigrants can vote only if they’re citizens.
Let’s hope the New York City Council action faces legal challenge and does not become law. It’s bad for those it pretends to help and it sets a dangerous precedent for America.