In the shadow of 9/11, with a palpable disquiet running through immigrant communities nationwide, a grass-roots movement to give legal immigrants the right to vote in local elections is gaining a foothold from New York to Chicago to San Francisco.
The goal is to counter the increasing sense of alienation among America's newcomers, and replace it with community involvement and civic activism.
To advocates, it's a restoration of a right that was taken for granted in Colonial times and as the country expanded westward.
But to opponents, this renewed effort to enfranchise immigrants is a misguided shortcut that will undermine the process and importance of becoming a full American citizen.
The whole debate "gets to the value and importance of the right to vote," says Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. "I don't think as a nation we take it seriously enough."
Augusto Peña has lived in this country for more than 30 years. During that time, he's been a community activist, organizing his neighbors in New York City to take a stand at City Hall on education reform, traveling toAlbany to lobby Gov. George Pataki for a fair share of funding, and trying to convince Education Secretary Rod Paige about the importance of early education.
But there is one thing this longtime Bronx building superintendent from the Dominican Republican can not do - vote. He's not a citizen, even though he began the process of applying back in 1986. So he's taking up a new cause: Enfranchising legal immigrants. "It's important for us to have a voice in our communities, to let us vote for people who have good ideas for our kids in school," he says. "It will give us a voice before we become citizens: It's a step in the process."
Across the country, 20 million legal immigrants like Mr. Peña work, pay taxes, and serve in the military. Their kids go to local schools, and many own neighborhood businesses. In a handful of places, like Takoma Park, they are already allowed to pull the lever in local elections.
In New York, they could vote in school board races and even serve on the board until two years ago, when the system was reorganized. This spring, the City Council will hold hearings on whether the 1.3 million legal immigrants that live here should have the right to vote for all local offices.
"Since 9/11 there has been a great fear amongst new immigrants at all levels, but particularly about issues that are important to them," says Gouri Sadhwani, executive director of the New York Civic Participation Project. "In a very practical way, allowing them to vote will connect them with the long history of new immigrants in this country and give them the opportunity to participate in the most fundamental way in our democracy."
But to opponents - which includes this city's mayor - enfranchising immigrants will only dilute the nation's democracy. They think of it as the equivalent of two people living together without making the formal commitment of marriage with all of the responsibilities it entails.
"There have been an awful lot of people over the years that have fought and died for the right to vote," the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said at a press conference earlier this month. "If you want to have full rights, and voting is a very big part of full rights, become a citizen."
But historically, citizenship has not be a requirement for voting. When the nation was first founded, a man just needed to be a property owner to cast a ballot. As an incentive to settle the West, many states and territories required people to simply be a "resident" for one to two years.
Granting voting rights was seen as a way to get newcomers engaged in the civic process. In 1848, Wisconsin established a model that other states soon followed. It simply required residents to declare their intention of becoming citizens before being allowed to vote. Up until the 1920s, when a powerful, antiimmigrant backlash swept the country, 22 states and territories allowed legal immigrants to vote in local elections.
"It was a proven pathway to civic education, political education, and citizenship by giving people a stake in their communities," says Ron Hayduk, a political scientist at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.
But opponents are unimpressed with the historical analogy. They note that as the nation has expanded voting rights to more and more people, it's also worked to formalize its electoral process. "Things were done in a much more laid-back and informal fashion in the past," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration. "We've made the system much more consistent and predictable, and part of that consistency is an insistence on naturalization before being granted the right to vote."
Advocates say that it can take up to 10 years for full citizenship to be granted, in part because of a backlog and red tape. And during that time, they argue, legal immigrants are being subjected to taxation without representation - the battle cry of pre-revolutionary America.
Mr. Krikorian disputes that it takes that long to take the oath, but agrees the country should make it easier for immigrants like Peña to become full citizens.
But for Peña, who had some tax problems that complicated his application, voting is not an end in itself. It's a step that will help immigrants become more educated and involved. "It will make them want to become citizens more," he says. "It will help them understand the importance of participation."