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Monday, June 21, 2004

MercuryNews.com | 06/21/2004 | S.F. may give non-citizens school board voting rights

MercuryNews.com | 06/21/2004 | S.F. may give non-citizens school board voting rights

Posted on Mon, Jun. 21, 2004
S.F. may give non-citizens school board voting rights

By Jessie Mangaliman

Mercury News


In a push to get more immigrants involved in their children's education, San Francisco officials are considering asking voters in November to give parents who are not U.S. citizens the right to vote in school board elections.

Under the proposed ballot initiative, even illegal immigrants would be able to vote, so long as they are parents with kids in public schools.

If the effort succeeds, San Francisco would become the first city in California to join a growing number of cities across the country that have adopted similar laws in recent years. The move could open the door for other cities or counties in the immigrant-rich Bay Area to follow suit.

The controversial idea is already fueling charges from critics who say allowing non-citizens to vote devalues citizenship. But immigrant advocates and some voting-rights experts believe it's only a matter of time before the state comes to grips with its new demographic reality: Almost one-fifth of all voting-age Californians are non-citizens.

``It's almost a necessity for many cities,'' said Joaquin Avila, a law professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and a voting-rights expert who wrote a 2003 study on non-citizen voting and its potential impact on California. ``You can't have a growing number of residents in your jurisdictions that are not part of the body politic. You want to have everyone inside the tent.''

Voter qualifications

Under the California Constitution, qualified voters must be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen. But legal experts drafting the change to San Francisco's charter say municipalities have the right to define voting qualifications in local elections.

``The idea here is not so radical,'' said Matt Gonzalez, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and author of the proposal. ``Ultimately, we'd like non-citizen voting in all municipal elections. This is a starting place.''

Until 1926, almost two dozen states allowed non-citizens to vote. Chicago and several suburban towns in Maryland allow the practice, and Washington, D.C., is considering doing the same. New York City, which for decades allowed non-citizens, regardless of their immigration status, to vote in school board elections, also is looking to open up the vote in all local elections.

The idea also is not new for San Francisco. In 1996, the city attempted to extend voting rights to non-citizens in all local elections, but a state judge ruled the plan invalid because changes to voting rights must be done through a state constitutional amendment. Supporters hope the narrower focus of limiting non-citizen voting rights to school board elections would stand up to a legal challenge.

Details of how to implement the latest plan, if approved, are not yet known. It's also unclear if by singling out parents, the law would discriminate against non-citizens who do not have children in the school system.

Some observers say that could be a problem. Santa Clara County schools Superintendent Colleen Wilcox, who has not taken a position on the issue, said she would be concerned about creating a system that would ``exclude a portion of the population based on whether or not they had children.''

For immigrant parents like Miguel Perez, a permanent resident whose daughter attends a San Francisco elementary school, the right to vote in the school board elections boils down to a basic democratic principle: no taxation without representation.

``We want to have the right to choose because this affects our daily lives,'' said Perez, a member of an immigrant rights group that supports the proposal.

In 1998, the school board voted to turn over the management and operation of a failing elementary school to a private New York firm. Perez and other non-citizen immigrants like Berta Hernandez opposed the hand-over but felt their views were not represented on the board.

Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant and mother of two young children, plans to apply for citizenship soon, though she realizes the bureaucratic process can sometimes take up to 10 years.

``This is not the key to solve all of our problems, but it's an important political tool to help us continue with the fight to have better schools for our children,'' Hernandez, 40, said of the San Francisco proposal.

Some critics say such a change would corrupt America's time-tested citizenship process. Others call the idea to allow undocumented immigrants to vote an outrage, although it's unclear how many immigrants would actually participate.

The end, not the means

``That kind of learning process, assimilation if you will, is something that has to take place as part of getting ready for citizenship. Voting is the end point,'' said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates strict immigration controls.

Krikorian said San Francisco probably has legal standing to allow the local voting, but he discredits ``the idea that this is a harmless measure.''

What's more, non-citizen parents have plenty of other avenues to participate in their children's education, such as the Parent Teacher Association, said Brenda Walker, spokeswoman for the Bay Area Coalition for Immigration Reform, a Berkeley-based group that supports reduction in U.S. immigration.

Arguments from both sides will be heard at a Rules Committee meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Wednesday. The issue then heads to the full board for a vote, where five supervisors, including Gonzalez, have already expressed support to place it on the November ballot. Mayor Gavin Newsom is reviewing the proposal and has not taken a position, his spokesman Peter Ragone said via e-mail.

Whether or not it withstands legal scrutiny, San Francisco's proposal moves the idea of non-citizen voting in California beyond the discussion stage.

``This is an exciting opportunity for cities across the country to really build a movement that recognizes that immigrant parents should have a say in their children's education,'' said Sheila Chung, executive director of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

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