September 17, 2010

Maine Voices: Letting legal immigrants vote has long history in this country

A nativist reaction in the 1920s turned that around, but things can be set right now.

PORTLAND - Volunteers for the Maine League of Young Voters have succeeded in qualifying Question 4, a ballot measure for this November.


Ralph Carmona is a University of California regent emeritus and former public affairs, energy and bank executive. Alfred Jacob is a naturalized citizen. Both are members of the “Voting Rights Now, ‘yes’ on 4” Campaign Steering Committee.

It will give Portland residents the chance to determine whether legal immigrants can vote in local elections.

Voting "yes" on Question 4 is about being legal: Local voting rights will go to immigrants who can show proof that they are legal residents. It will give them a voice in the community we are all a part of and recognize their need for representation with the taxes they pay.

Voting "yes" for extending voting rights to these neighbors is practical. Portland is part of a hyperconnected and increasingly diverse world. Today, the daily functions of citizens and noncitizens are indistinguishable: Legal immigrants are taking part in Portland's economy, expanding its civic and cultural affairs, complying with requirements to pay taxes and fighting in the U.S. armed services to protect America's core values.

It is time for Portland to give its legal residents a voice at the local level.

Voting "yes" on Question 4 is also fair. At the municipal level, all of us face similar issues: How are our local tax dollars being spent? Are our roads plowed? Is our garbage picked up? How good are our public schools? Our community has much to gain by letting all legal residents in Portland vote on these quality-of-life issues.

Opponents have chosen to sanctify citizenship to deny this right. They reflect an ongoing argument in America about citizen and noncitizen voting rights. The first three words of the Constitution are "We the people," not "we the citizens."

Too many forget that our Constitution does not mention citizenship as a requirement for voting. In fact, simply being a resident in a city like Portland was a common requirement for immigrant voters for the first 120 years of our history.

By denying voting rights, we perpetuate the segregation of those on the path to citizenship. We prevent more democratic input on municipal services that a future diverse American work force will need to provide financial security for both the most homogenous and elderly state in the union.

Councilor Dave Marshall has emphasized that the city's charter was changed to exclude immigrants from voting. Similar to the hostile voices aimed at immigrants of Muslim faith, University of Southern Maine Professor Mark Lapping has detailed how, a century ago, native Portland's hostile voices took aim at Catholic -- mostly Irish, French Canadian, Italian and Polish -- immigrants, creating widespread voter anxieties and fears.

Portland's 7,000-strong Ku Klux Klan rally in the 1920s, successfully excluding immigrant voting, is little different from the hostility of Glenn Beck toward President Obama's race, faith and citizenship.

Mainers, like most Americans, are reeling from the effects of what economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." We face a post-September 11 world of destructive recession in the face of a diverse immigration.

So why support giving legal immigrants local voting rights when you are unemployed and told that immigrants are displacing you? When others say that they do not legally share your faith or democratic values? Certainly, the federal government's inept failure for comprehensive immigration reform has not helped.

The voting rights ballot initiative represents a more positive back-to-the-future approach toward diversity and immigration. It is nothing new, according to Portland historian Allan Levinsky, helps reverse the KKK anti-immigrant voting "reforms," is good for business and helps secure benefits for senior citizens.

It represents a Portland generation-push, bottoms-up, natural, organic and creative form of economic reinvention, the beginning of what futurist Richard Florida calls the "great reset" of our economy with new ideas, thoughts and ways of working and living.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us: "One asks what is to come? Another asks what is right? And that is the difference between a slave and a free man." This initiative is a conversation about what is right and what is to come. We are right to make immigrants a part of Portland's democracy and its future. It is a proven approach that immigration is what makes America grow and how we will reset its future.

Do we really want the Big Brother approach of hostile cities and states that require public officials to question the legality of a more diverse America that "looks illegal" and further segregates many future and present citizens?

Supporters of Question 4 reject that future. We hope the voters do too and vote "yes" on Question 4.


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