Column: D.C. should extend the right to vote to noncitizens

The D.C. Council has repeatedly stalled legislation that would allow noncitizens to vote in local D.C. elections in the last decade, but that all changed last month when the Council voted to enfranchise 50,000 noncitizen D.C. residents, including international students. The Local Residents Voting Act would grant local suffrage to green-card holders, temporary residents on visas and undocumented immigrants who have resided in D.C. for at least 30 days. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congress now face the imperative responsibility to turn the Council’s bill into D.C. law. Doing so would give local immigrants a chance to receive the rights and representation that the city should bestow upon any constituents who call D.C. home.

Immigrant communities in D.C. said they have felt too far removed from the District’s political priorities to get behind pre-existing, organizing efforts around the noncitizen local vote. This February, immigrants gathered outside the White House to boycott their jobs and highlight the immense impact their presence plays in the United States. With the Local Residents Voting Act now gaining momentum, noncitizen residents in D.C. might finally secure the support they deserve from those in power. Such a measure could alleviate the weight of inequality these residents have experienced for generations and restore a sense of political efficacy. Voting rights for noncitizens would prove that they too can cast a meaningful vote for local leaders who can champion real change on topics, like immigration rights, education, infrastructure and policing, that affect their basic quality of life.

International students make up about 14 percent of GW’s student body and are essential contributors to its student life, academic success and culture. While international students might not receive the same attention from the District as the other noncitizen residents living in the District as other full-time employees, this city is still their home for four years and they deserve an equal opportunity to participate in local elections. At a University that prides itself on its political involvement, all students should be able to participate in the country’s democratic system. The Princeton Review ranks GW twelfth on its list of universities with the most politically active student bodies, and civic engagement student organizations on campus attract students, including those who are noncitizens, en masse. GW has the largest and most involved College Democrats chapter in the nation. For international students who wish to assume a more active role in U.S. politics and their local communities, the Local Residents Voting Act would connect them to the local officials who decide the level of their protection to live in a city like D.C.

Mary Cheh, a research professor at GW Law and the D.C. Council member who cast the sole dissenting vote on the Local Residents Voting Act, claimed voting rights for noncitizen residents would create a dangerous precedent allowing for “complete strangers” in D.C. to impact local policy. Likening any immigrants to a stranger only furthers xenophobic rhetoric, discourages potential political efficacy for immigrants at a local level and dismisses D.C.’s true identity. Noncitizen residents account for at least 26 percent of D.C.’s workforce and pay millions of dollars a year in state and local taxes. These taxes help fund D.C. schools, hospitals and other essential services – all of which are vital to the city’s well-being. Immigrants are fellow students, friends, families and neighbors. As contributors to D.C.’s economy and members of our own communities, the least D.C. can offer resident noncitizens in return is the basic right to vote.

The push to let noncitizen residents vote in local elections is a new movement, but an equally important one that other local jurisdictions have backed. If Congress decides to approve this bill and deliver much-needed, reformative change to D.C., the city would join several others in Maryland, like Mount Rainier, Takoma Park, College Park and Hyattsville, in allowing noncitizen residents to vote in local elections. And if such a major U.S. hub like D.C. ensured the noncitizen vote, it could pave the way for others with high immigrant populations to do the same.

D.C. should not be a space based on exclusivity. Allowing more voters equal opportunity to participate in local politics has real potential to augment voter turnout and representation. Granting noncitizen residents the chance to participate in local politics should not be a frightening change, but a hopeful one. The District should welcome the Local Residents Voting Act with open arms the same way it does political activism, increased voter turnout and a supported immigrant population.

Paige Baratta, a freshman studying political science, is an opinions writer.

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