Maggy Donaldson reports on the drive to make New York the first big U.S. city to allow legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections.
By Maggy Donaldson
NEW YORK – Edith Boncompain, a French citizen who lives in New York, voted in France’s 2012 presidential election. A month later, she and other French nationals living in the United States and Canada elected Corinne Narassiguin to the first ever seat in France’s National Assembly representing North American French expatriates, a constituency of 186,462.
But Boncompain cannot vote in her own city, where she is principal of a public school, the New York French-American Charter School in Harlem. Although she moved from Lyon, France, to New York seven years ago, pays taxes and considers herself a part of American society, she is among one million New Yorkers unable to vote here.
If Democratic City Council Member Daniel Dromm gets his way, Boncompain might get the vote next year. In 2010, Dromm introduced legislation that would extend municipal voting rights to lawful immigrants residing in the city a minimum of six months. “Organizers are optimistic that Intro 410 will be enacted in the coming year,” he said in a statement.
The idea of extending the vote in local elections to immigrants is slowly gaining support in the U.S. and elsewhere. Six towns in Maryland grant immigrants that right, but passing the bill, known as Intro 410, would make New York the first major American city to give non-citizen residents the vote.
“Fifty-five percent of the people in my district are not able to vote because of their immigration status,” Dromm, who represents neighborhoods in the Queens borough, said at a recent press conference. “People who are legally present in the United States and who work, pay taxes and live in our neighborhoods must have the opportunity to participate in municipal elections.”
Most non-citizen residents in Dromm’s district come from Latin America. Significant immigrant populations from Asia and Africa also have settled in the city in recent years. European immigrants represent 12.1 percent of the foreign-born population, according to the 2010 census.
Of the 51 council members, 32 signed the legislation, while 19 opposed it. At a joint public hearing of the Immigration and Government Operations Committees last May, the council heard testimonies from many individuals and advocacy groups in favor of extending the vote to non-citizens.
Municipalities in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, Texas, California and New York State have considered similar propositions. French President François Hollande said during his campaign that he would extend voting rights to non-citizen residents in France, though he has not introduced any legislation yet. The Neuchatel and Jura cantons in Switzerland already allow residents to vote in local elections.
As a French citizen living in America, Boncompain said she feels disconnected from politics in both countries. Voting in American elections would matter more to her, she said, especially considering her professional role in a public charter school.
“I feel like I’m giving to the American society,” Boncompain said. “Not only with my taxes, but with my knowledge, and what I do here. I feel like at one point I should get something back from the country.”
The City Planning Department just released a report called The Newest New Yorkers, analyzing the city’s ever-changing immigrant population, which reached a record-high 3.1 million this year. The report studies immigrants’ origins and settlement patterns, as well as their socioeconomic effects on the city.
Ron Hayduk, a founding member of the NYC Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, said immigrant contributions like those detailed in the report make expanding voting rights a ripe issue whose “time has come.”
“I think New York is the place to do it,” Hayduk said. “It’s a polyglot gateway. It’s been an immigrant place for a long time. Here we are, the home of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, symbols of the U.S. as an immigrant nation. What better place and what better time.”
“Immigrants make countless contributions every day to the city,” Hayduk continued. “They’ve revitalized neighborhoods. A lot of the small businesses that exist have been from immigrant entrepreneurs. They would be able to contribute even more politically if they were given the right to vote.”
Jean-Cosme Delaloye moved to New York from Lausanne, Switzerland, 11 years ago as a foreign correspondent and filmmaker. He resides in Brooklyn and has held permanent residence status, known as having a green card, for five years. Both of his children are American citizens, and one attends Public School 133, where Delaloye played a leading role in creating a French dual-language program. The program is based on a curriculum instructing students half the time in French and half in English.
Delaloye said he and many other non-citizen parents have made positive contributions to the school, and voting would be a natural extension of their community involvement.
“It’s not something I demand, but I feel like it has an impact on my kids and it should be a right,” Delaloye said. “When I’m covering politics, I see how important voting and the political process is. It would be good if we could be a part of it.”
Boncompain has a visa, but would prefer a green card, since she does not plan to move back to France and may someday pursue American citizenship. She said she would not apply for citizenship just to vote, but voting would help her feel that she had a place in her community.
“Right now, I’m at this point where here, I’m French, and over there, I’m not French anymore,” Boncompain said. “It’s not easy. As we say in French … we sit between two chairs, meaning you are in between two things and it’s a very uncomfortable position. That’s where I am right now.”
“There are so many things that I love in this country, that I think are amazing,” she continued. “Just participating in decision-making, and that’s what it means to vote, would be great.”