Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Want to Fix Immigration? Give Noncitizens the Vote

A tiny step that could make a huge difference when it comes to immigration reform.

ED OUDENAARDEN/AFP/Getty Images
ED OUDENAARDEN/AFP/Getty Images
ED OUDENAARDEN/AFP/Getty Images

Arizona isn't the only place where politicians with harsh approaches to immigration issues seem to find fans. Witness the June national elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders, a politician who has compared the Quran to Mein Kampf and called for a tax on Muslim headscarves, made an impressive showing. It's still possible he might end up exerting significant influence in the next Dutch coalition government.

But the Netherlands also offers an interesting case study in what happens when anti-immigrant politicians must face the people most affected by their policies: immigrants themselves. While noncitizens aren't able to vote in Dutch national elections, they can vote in local elections, and the results of this policy -- in the Netherlands and several other European countries where noncitizen immigrants are even allowed, in some cases, to run for local office -- have been positive. Extending the franchise to resident noncitizens may still be a political impossibility in most parts of the world, but it does have some intriguing benefits -- not just for foreign residents themselves, but for the broader community as well.

Arizona isn’t the only place where politicians with harsh approaches to immigration issues seem to find fans. Witness the June national elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders, a politician who has compared the Quran to Mein Kampf and called for a tax on Muslim headscarves, made an impressive showing. It’s still possible he might end up exerting significant influence in the next Dutch coalition government.

But the Netherlands also offers an interesting case study in what happens when anti-immigrant politicians must face the people most affected by their policies: immigrants themselves. While noncitizens aren’t able to vote in Dutch national elections, they can vote in local elections, and the results of this policy — in the Netherlands and several other European countries where noncitizen immigrants are even allowed, in some cases, to run for local office — have been positive. Extending the franchise to resident noncitizens may still be a political impossibility in most parts of the world, but it does have some intriguing benefits — not just for foreign residents themselves, but for the broader community as well.

Of course, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic can offer up a litany of reasons why noncitizens shouldn’t be allowed to vote. The question revolves around whether you think that a person can be trusted to vote and serve in political office in an adopted land, while still holding the citizenship of a foreign country. If you don’t agree, as Wilders emphatically doesn’t, then you might be swayed by fears that giving immigrants the franchise could lead to Muslims pushing for religious training in state-supported schools or publicly financed minarets dotting European skylines.

But the Netherlands example makes a good counterbalance. Despite more than 20 years of noncitizen voting, the Kabul-on-the-dikes-of-Holland scenario has not come to pass. For one thing, Dutch immigrants can only vote in local elections, so they aren’t in a position to influence federal policy. They also constitute only a small percentage of the population, so even if they were to band together to support certain parties, they’re unlikely to swing elections.

And as it turns out, immigrants generally tend not to vote as a monolithic bloc. "It’s not as though they consistently support left- or right-leaning parties," says David Earnest, professor at Old Dominion University and author of Old Nations, New Voters. Generally, when immigrants enter politics en masse it’s to protect themselves from discriminatory policy. In Denmark, for example, municipal boards with immigrant members helped blunt policies introduced by a conservative government in 2001. When the new Danish administration opted to stop funding the teaching of non-EU foreign languages in schools, local councils with sizable immigrant representation ponied up the money to compensate for the lost federal funds. As a result, students could continue with "mother tongue" instruction in languages like Turkish and Spanish, which under the new government policy was to be offered to students hailing from Spain — but not Latin America.

In the Netherlands, where immigrants have had the right to vote since 1986, granting the franchise was not an earth-shattering event. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, voter participation dropped off — much like elsewhere in established democracies. But 20 years later, noncitizen immigrants found new reason to vote when the Dutch more or less began to shred their post-World War II reputation for tolerance.

Two high-profile murders in the early 2000s deeply shook Dutch society. The politician Pim Fortuyn was gunned down for his critiques of Islam in 2002, and two years later, a Moroccan radical brutally stabbed the filmmaker Theo van Gogh for a film he made excoriating the treatment of women under Islam. A new conservative government capitalized on public outrage to reorder the country’s immigration policies. Tough restrictions and a controversial cultural exam effectively staunched immigration to the Netherlands from non-Western nations. The face of the campaign, Minister Rita Verdonk, popularly known as "Iron Rita," went so far as to advocate banning the speaking of non-Dutch languages on the street.

But instead of demonstrating in the street, or taking to violent measures, immigrants registered their discontent in the 2006 local elections. In Amsterdam, for example, Turkish voters increased turnout from 30 to 51 percent, according to a study conducted at the University of Amsterdam. These voters punished Verdonk’s party, and though their votes affected officeholders only on the local level, the results caught the attention of politicians at the top of the ballot. Verdonk lost a power struggle to become head of her party and stepped down.

Temperatures cooled in the aftermath. Subsequent governments backed away from supporting Verdonk’s harshest proposals and, not surprisingly, the most recent election saw a decrease in noncitizen turnout. The one exception, however, was Moroccan immigrants, who voted in slightly higher numbers than usual, "probably due to the fact that Wilders has particularly targeted that population," says Anja van Heelsum, a researcher at the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

When immigrant voting does make a difference outside of hot-button questions regarding citizenship and ethnicity, it tends to be on bread-and-butter local issues like education. In small, incremental ways, it can help realize the fundamental purpose of the ballot: ensuring that officeholders are accountable to residents who pay taxes and use government services.

One of the best examples of that dynamic can be found in New York. From 1970 to 2003, noncitizen legal immigrants in the city were allowed to vote for members of the school board. (The policy was changed when Mayor Michael Bloomberg dissolved school boards as part of his overhaul of the city’s educational system.) In the 1980s, the Dominican community in Washington Heights, frustrated by the poor-quality schools serving their children, mobilized to pressure the city to pour more resources into the blighted neighborhood. A registration campaign added 10,000 residents to the city’s voter rolls, and their ballots helped elect a Dominican slate of candidates. But it wasn’t the ethnicity of the candidates that really mattered. The new council members successfully landed services like bilingual education, up-to-date textbooks, after-school programs, and upgraded school facilities. "It ended up not just benefiting Dominicans," says Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at City College of New York, "but also the children of the Irish and Jewish communities who had resided in Washington Heights for decades."

Increasingly, political parties are adjusting to the impact of noncitizen voters. Even established parties are realizing the value of putting more people of nonnative ethnicity on their candidate list. In some cases, immigrants have become visible public figures. The mayor of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, for example, is Moroccan-born. Van Heelsum points out that the mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, who migrated to the Netherlands at the age of 14 and holds dual nationality, upends the traditional Dutch stereotypes about Moroccans. "There can be this idea that they are in gangs, that they are street boys," she says. "And here Aboutaleb speaks Dutch with an upper-class accent and is always wearing a blue suit." In Ireland, Nigerian Rotimi Adebari, elected mayor of Portlaoise in 2007, became a symbol of the country’s new ethnic diversity after its economic boom.

But not all of Europe is ready for this new reality. In fact, most countries with liberal immigrant voting laws passed them well before immigration was even an issue. When Norway, Denmark, and Sweden extended the franchise in the early and mid-1970s, for example, most foreigners living within their borders were from other Nordic countries. These days, in countries where multiculturalism is already a reality, voting rights for immigrants are far harder to promote. In 2005, then-interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy floated the possibility of allowing immigrants to vote in France after riots flared in the immigrant banlieues, but the proposal went nowhere.

In the United States, where noncitizens could vote in many states before the Red Scare of the late 1910s, efforts to extend the franchise have sprung up in liberal enclaves like San Francisco, Boston, New York, and Washington, with little success. Today, legal and illegal noncitizens can vote only in Chicago school-board elections and six municipalities in Maryland.

Still, despite the political challenges, it’s worth giving this low-risk, potentially high-reward policy some thought. Because immigrants would only be able to vote at the local level, they wouldn’t have even an indirect say on U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, for example. But inclusion in public life can make people feel more invested in a country, cutting down on the kind of alienation that can fuel crime and terrorism. And isn’t that exactly what immigration reform is meant to be all about?

Alexandra Starr is an Emerson fellow at the New America Foundation.

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.