Newton city aldermen want to give legal immigrants who aren't citizens the right to vote in local elections, sparking debate among state lawmakers, immigrant rights advocates, and opponents about the meaning of citizenship amid the changing demographics of the region.
The aldermen last week approved a proposal to allow resident aliens to vote, joining Cambridge, Amherst, and Wayland in passing such measures in recent years. Two of the municipalities have asked the Legislature for authority to grant legal immigrants, those with green cards, the right to vote over the last decade, but the lawmakers, wary of a backlash against immigration and the power of a new batch of voters, have not approved the requests.
"There are some cities with large immigrant populations, and local elected officials are often sensitive about the power that a large voting bloc of say, Cambodians or Haitians or any other immigrant group might be able to wield," said state Representative Ellen Story, Democrat of Amherst, whose town has repeatedly sought the authority to allow noncitizens the right to vote.
In Newton, alderman Ted Hess-Mahan , who spearheaded the proposal in that city, said that residents who pay taxes, send their children to school, and own property in Newton should also be able to vote on measures that affect them. One in 12 Newton residents is a legal immigrant, many of them Chinese or Russian. The resolution could give voting rights to as many as 4,000 people, Hess-Mahan estimated.
"If you had even just 2,000 people who wouldn't otherwise be able to vote come out, it could mean the difference in an important election," he said.
Under the Newton proposal, the city's Election Commission would create a register of qualified permanent resident alien voters. Permanent resident aliens -- people who have so-called green cards -- would have to sign registration forms including a sworn declaration that they live in Newton, are legally in the United States, and are seeking to become citizens, if eligible. (People with green cards have taken steps to becoming naturalized but are not yet citizens.) Under the new resolution, they would be able to vote only in local, but not state or federal, elections.
Lorrie Hall, founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, said her group opposes the proposal.
"Why become a citizen if you get all the privileges reserved for citizens?" she said.
Many cities in other states have already granted voting rights to immigrants. According to the Immigrant Voting Project, a national advocacy group, Chicago allows legal immigrants to vote in school elections, six towns in Maryland allow them to vote in municipal elections, and advocates in New York City are seeking approval to allow legal immigrants to vote.
"Everyone has an interest in safe streets, good schools, well-paying jobs, and access to healthcare," said Immigrant Voting Project co-founder Ron Hayduk . "Immigrants give greater voice to those concerns."
That was the idea behind an immigrant voting rights proposal in Cambridge, where many Guatemalans and Salvadorans came in the '80s and '90s fleeing conflicts in their homelands. In 2003, the City Council approved a resolution giving immigrants the right to vote in all municipal elections.
But the Legislature did not approve the city's home rule petition. State Representative Alice Wolf of Cambridge said the measure was sent to a legislative study committee, which Wolf likened to "throwing it in the wastebasket."
Wolf said her colleagues wanted communities across the state to have consistent voting rules. And they shied away from the immigration debate, she said.
"This is a very controversial issue," she said. "I mean, all immigration issues are controversial."
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to restrict immigration, opposes the voting measures. Spokesman Ira Mehlman said proposals like Cambridge's "viscerally grab people the wrong way."
"It's the idea that nothing is sacred anymore, nothing means anything any more, that citizenship has no value," he said.
But Elena Letona , executive director of Centro Presente, an immigrant advocacy group in Cambridge, said many refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador in Cambridge have been in the process of obtaining US citizenship for more than a decade.
"It's a bureaucratic, very complicated process," she said.
Nevertheless, the effort has lost momentum in Cambridge. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition , which lobbied the Legislature to allow communities to enact such proposals without state lawmakers' approval, now says it will make other immigration issues, like in-state tuition for immigrants, a higher priority.
"I wouldn't say we've backed away from the issue," coalition director Ali Noorani said. "We've prioritized other issues."
In Amherst, the Town Meeting has voted six times since 1996 for measures allowing residents with green cards to vote in local elections, according to former school committeeman Vladimir Morales.
Morales said he proposed the measure to help give a political voice to Central American immigrants employed in Amherst's restaurants. He added that it would also likely benefit professors from the University of Massachusetts, for example, who are here legally but may not be citizens.
Story said she filed the legislation but did not have strong feelings for or against it. "There are people in Amherst whose opinions I respect that very strongly disagree with it," she said, describing them as "people who have lived in Amherst a very long time."
In Wayland, Town Meeting overwhelmingly supported the measure last spring, much to the surprise of Kim Reichelt , who led the campaign. Reichelt, a mother of two and MIT graduate, said she has come to know many parents in the schools who are immigrants. Many were working professionals from Ireland and India who wanted to vote on tax override matters or school funding issues.
"I had realized I would like to do this for them," she said.
Modeled after Amherst's, the Wayland rule could have affected an estimated 240 immigrant residents. Town Meeting members passed it in a show of hands.
Joe Rizoli , director of Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement in Framingham said he opposes voting rights for legal immigrants because he fears it could dilute the status of Americans.
"Anything that waters down Americanism, to me, I just feel is a step backwards," he said.
Rizoli, who hosts a Framingham cable access show called "Illegal Immigration Chat," said he also fears that immigrants might use forged green cards to prove their legal status.
Alderman Hess-Mahan said when he first suggested the idea in Newton in 2004, the proposal would not have required immigrant voters to be in the process of seeking citizenship to qualify to vote. With the incentive to become a citizen included in the new proposal, the Newton board passed the measure, 20-4, last month.
State Representative Kay Khan, Democrat of Newton, said she will file a home rule petition to begin the process of trying to get it enacted. "Anything, I suppose, can be a slippery slope," Khan said of critics' concerns. "But that's not the way we're looking at it at this juncture. We want to encourage people to become US citizens."
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at email@example.com.