Give All Immigrants the Vote

The United States will be a better place when every resident is represented.

By Noah Berlatsky, a freelance writer in Chicago.
People head to the voting booths in Charleston, South Carolina
People head to the voting booths to cast their in-person absentee ballots at Seacoast Church West Ashley in Charleston, South Carolina, on Oct. 30. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Over the last few years, Democrats have become increasingly focused on expanding the franchise. In the teeth of Republican opposition, they’ve tried to restore voting rights to former prisoners convicted of felonies in Virginia and Florida. They passed a D.C. statehood bill in the House that would have finally allowed people in the district to vote for representatives and senators. They’ve been trying to restore the Voting Rights Act to protect the rights of Black voters.

These efforts are necessary and admirable. But they don’t include the group that has arguably been most sweepingly and effectively excluded from the franchise in the United States: immigrants. As Republicans continue to target immigrants with demagoguery and discrimination, it’s past time to consider giving them the means to protect themselves. And the best way to empower the marginalized in a democracy is to give them the vote—even before they become citizens. The right to vote should be extended to every adult resident of the United States.

The American Revolution was driven by the recognition that taxation without representation is tyranny. The American colonists believed that a government that had power over them with no accountability would inevitably become abusive.

There are about 25 million immigrants who are not yet citizens, and often have no path to become such, in the United States, including permanent legal immigrants, temporary legal immigrants, and undocumented people. That’s more than the population of Florida —and around 10 times the population of the American colonies when they went to war with Great Britain. Those immigrants, including undocumented ones, pay taxes— undocumented immigrants alone paid $11.6 billion in taxes in 2013. But despite their contributions, they can’t vote on how those tax dollars are spent, nor on how they should be treated by the government they support.

And, just as the Founding Fathers predicted, a population that has no representation is subject to abuse. This is not new, but the Trump administration has famously ramped up the cruelty and tyranny directed at immigrants, regardless of their legal status. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries has caused enormous pain to people who applied to enter the United States to join family and suddenly found themselves excluded for the duration. Ramped-up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids have terrorized entire communities. The Trump administration still has not reunited many children and their parents who were separated at the Mexican border.

Votes for immigrants is a controversial idea, to say the least. Politicians regularly portray immigrants as outsiders and interlopers, who take American jobs and undermine American values. Trump has built his political career on claiming immigrants bring crime and disease to the United States. More intellectual conservatives such as Ross Douthat worry that too much immigration or insufficient border enforcement can lead to waves of migration, prompting a natural backlash in which society finds itself “lurching toward populism.” Immigrants in these narratives are dangerous in of themselves, or dangerous because their mere presence, as an illegitimate presence, pushes decent Americans to fascism.

But it’s not immigrants who push Americans toward fascism. It’s the demonization of immigrants and the denial of rights to immigrants that allow authoritarianism and bigotry to flourish.

Obviously, voting rights do not protect people from any and all government abuses. Women can vote, and that has not stopped the Trump administration from trying to roll back their rights to reproductive health care. But there are around 3 million non-naturalized immigrants in Texas, around 11 percent of the population. If they could vote, the current close presidential race in Texas might not be close at all. With his reelection at stake, perhaps Trump would have thought twice about creating concentration camps for immigrants on the border.

Disenfranchising immigrants makes it easy to harm them with impunity and without fear of electoral consequences. But it threatens everyone else’s freedom and safety as well. Demagogues can scapegoat immigrants to increase support for authoritarian measures and government power grabs. ICE has repeatedly targeted U.S. citizens for arrest and deportation. It has also tracked anti-Trump protesters and journalists who cover immigration; hatred of immigrants creates an opening for government to restrict free speech. Trump’s administration has used his promised anti-immigration border wall to justify eminent domain land grabs at the border. And, of course, disenfranchising immigrants makes it easier for anti-immigrant Republicans like Trump to win election, at which point they can target other marginalized groups, attack the press, and undermine everyone’s voting rights.

Votes for immigrants may seem like an unprecedented expansion of the franchise. But many countries have already granted voting rights to noncitizens, especially in local elections. Immigrants with five years of legal residence have voted in local elections in Belgium since 2006, and a recent bill may extend that right to regional elections. Qualified resident foreigners can also vote in local elections in Colombia, Bolivia, and New Zealand, among other countries. Commonwealth citizens (who make up 2.4 billion people worldwide) legally resident in the United Kingdom can vote in all elections.

There is also a history of noncitizen voting in the United States itself. The scholars Ron Hayduk and Michele Wucker write that noncitizen residents voted in local, state, and/or federal elections in 22 states and federal territories between 1776 and 1926, until growing xenophobia put an end to the practice.

Noncitizen voting continues in some smaller localities today. A number of cities in Maryland allow both green card holders and undocumented people to vote in local elections. In 2017, College Park became the largest city in the country to allow immigrants to vote. A handful of jurisdictions in the country allow noncitizen residents to vote in school board elections as well—a practice that has been found to increase student achievement.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that schools benefit when all parents can participate in the community, just as the nation benefits when its residents are empowered. Whether you’re talking about a school, a city, or a nation, government works best when you’re invested in your neighbors’ welfare and they’re invested in yours. A society in which some people are more equal than others—in which you have the right to determine your neighbors’ fate without any input from them—is going to be an unequal society, sliding inevitably toward cruelty, intolerance, and authoritarianism.

Votes for noncitizen immigrants, including undocumented ones, may seem like an impossible, impractical dream, not worth discussing. But people scoffed at votes for Black people and women not so long ago. At a time when one political party is increasingly resting its identity on xenophobia and hate, it’s worth offering another vision. The country will be safer, more equal, and more just when everyone who lives under its government can vote.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.