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PERSPECTIVE

A More Perfect Union

It's time we let legal immigrants vote in local elections. Doing so could save us from becoming like France!

When Amherst, Cambridge, or Brookline comes up with an idea – spanking bans, nuclear-free zones, or censoring West Side Story – it’s easy to roll your eyes. So it might seem with giving immigrants the right to vote in local elections, a plan that all three communities have asked the Massachusetts Legislature to approve. But this idea is not confined to left-wing burgs. Newton, Wayland, and even Boston have passed or are considering similar proposals. And nationwide, New York, Chicago, and at least four municipalities in Maryland – none of which is axiomatically loopy – allow noncitizens to vote in some local elections (such as for school boards) or have recently done so. So before dismissing the notion outright, consider that this might just be something that makes sense.

Note that we’re only talking about legal immigrants – those with green cards who are here for the long haul. They number about 300,000 in Massachusetts. They’re just like the rest of us: They have jobs and homes, their kids go to local schools, and they pay taxes.

And if they are just like the rest of us, why not let them vote? The standard response, typically delivered with much harrumphing, is that they’re not citizens. One can imagine King George III delivering the same message, a message that Colonists 234 years ago rejected when they threw tea into Boston Harbor. In fact, early on in the nation’s history, most states allowed noncitizens to vote (that generally ended in the early 1900s, largely because of a backlash against European immigrants). So did Massachusetts, up until 1811. And, while the US Constitution sets the rules for voting in national elections, decisions about who is eligible to vote in local elections are up to each of the 50 states – an explicit recognition that US citizenship need not be critical to granting the right to vote.

Some opponents to immigrant voting may admit all this, but argue that if we grant immigrants voting rights, then the incentive to become a citizen is reduced. The harm in this, they say, is an increasing fragmentation of American society. It’s an important and seemingly compelling argument. As a matter of logic, however, it’s upside down: Granting voting rights in local elections should encourage, not discourage, immigrants from becoming part of American society.

Voting is a (perhaps the) key mechanism for any of us to become involved in how our communities are run. Allow immigrants a foot in the door – some small say over local schools or town politics – and you should see them become more engaged and more imbued with American values. “Voting encourages citizenship,” says Ronald Hayduk, cofounder of the New York-based Immigrant Voting Project. Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, argues the same thing.

More than just theory, this is an argument that can be empirically tested. Take Chicago, for example. If the critics were right, then one would expect to have seen a reduction in applications for citizenship after noncitizens were allowed to vote in elections for local school councils. Instead, the reverse has been true. From 2005 to 2006, such applications in the Chicago area increased by 32 percent – far higher than other areas of the country – “and it continues to go up rapidly,” says Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

That’s all to the good, but here’s the real reason I favor immigrant voting: I don’t want us to become like the Netherlands or – God forbid – France. Both countries have growing immigrant populations, and both find themselves divided, with the newcomers dangerously unassimilated, living as if in a world apart. One of the great fears that run through all of our domestic debates over immigration is that America faces this risk as well.

Immigrant voting is one way to battle against that. One doesn’t have to agree or disagree with amnesty for illegals to recognize that it is a good thing for legal immigrants to become assimilated, to become – to resurrect a regrettably unfashionable term – part of the American melting pot. Letting noncitizens vote is not only a matter of justice, it’s also a matter of keeping this nation whole.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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