New York Won’t Recover Without Immigrants: Expanding Voting Rights Will Help Us Continue to Attract Them

NYC Council is currently debating whether to take a critical step towards advancing voting rights for immigrants by giving lawful permanent residents — more commonly referred to as “green card holders” — the right to vote in local elections.

By Hanna Johnson

The idea that taxpayers should have a say in their government representation is well-established in this country. “No taxation without representation” was an ideal upon which our founding fathers went to war. But in New York City (NYC), about a million legal, tax-paying residents  have no ability to vote in the elections that impact their daily lives.

NYC Council is currently debating whether to take a critical step towards advancing voting rights for immigrants by giving lawful permanent residents — more commonly referred to as “green card holders” — the right to vote in local elections. The bill, known as the Our City, Our Vote Act, has the support of 35 city council members, significantly more than the 26 votes it would need to pass.

But Mayor de Blasio has expressed skepticism of the bill, stating that he “does not believe it is legal” and would prefer people to go through the full naturalization process. The Mayor has not committed to signing it if it reaches his desk. If the advocates pushing the bill prevail, it will give almost one million additional people the right to vote in local elections. This would impact the mayoral, public advocate, and city council elections, as well as local ballot initiatives. Green card holders still wouldn’t be allowed to vote in federal or state-level elections.

Green card holders are in the country legally. They have been vetted by the government and are often sponsored by family or employers. The naturalization process can take six to eight years, and many are somewhere along the long and arduous citizenship journey. 

Contrary to the anti-immigrant narrative, all immigrants pay taxes — regardless of documentation status. A 2017 report from Fiscal Policy Institute found that New York City’s 725,000 undocumented population contribute more than $1.1 billion in taxes to the state and city each year. Not only is the city’s green card population larger than the undocumented population, green card holders are also  required to file income tax returns each year. Assemblywoman Carolina Cruz, who represents residents in Queens, said noncitizen New Yorkers pay $10 billion in taxes every year. 

Immigrants have built so much of what makes New York City great, from our wealth of small businesses, to the vibrancy of music and culture, to the harmony of languages you hear when you walk down the street. More than 40 percent of the workforce, and nearly half of all small businesses are run by immigrants — many of whom are green card holders. Not only are immigrants an essential part of the city’s cultural and economic framework, they will also be an essential part of the City’s recovery from COVID-19 as frontline workers, small business owners, and members of key community organizations. 

But immigration is not something we can or should take for granted in this City. The number of foreign-born people holding green cards or other visas declined 16 percent between 2009 and 2019 — a drop that threatens the City’s economic recovery, as well as cultural fabric. New York City’s chief demographer told the New York Times in April, “If you ask me what the real threat to the city is, I will tell you the real threat is that we stop attracting immigrants.” 

By offering green card holders the right to vote in the elections that have a significant impact on their lives, we not only incentivize them to come to New York City, we encourage them to stay. We send the message that they are important members of our community, and we value their participation in our democracy. 

The immigrant population in the City is hugely impacted by the decisions made by the mayor and local officials. We’ve seen this first-hand during the pandemic, where immigrants and people of color have borne the brunt of the virus’s sickness and death toll. Because our elected officials are not accountable to immigrant communities, they were too slow to respond to their needs, even as the data showed they were suffering the most. 

This will change when local elected officials understand that they are accountable to green card holders at the ballot boxes. Giving them the right to vote will help ensure the priorities of immigrants — such as access to healthcare, emergency small business loans, housing support, etc. — are seriously considered by local representatives. It will balance the enormous power held by the City’s wealthy class, which has a long and notorious history of exploiting immigrant labor without offering any protection. This is, perhaps, why Mayor de Blasio and other members of the political establishment have been hesitant to pledge their support.

The question of whether to allow noncitizens the right to vote is not new, and the approach isn’t without precedent. Cities in Vermont, California, and Maryland allow noncitizens to vote in local and/or school board elections. The issue is being debated in D.C. and in Illinois. There is a growing realization that we can and must give people the right to vote for the representatives who will most impact their lives. Political participation by the people who live in a city increases the quality of the government, period.

By allowing green card holders to vote in NYC local elections, our city can do a better job governing in a way that’s inclusive of all New Yorkers. Providing voting rights to immigrants who are in the country legally will allow us to continue honing the democracy experiment we kicked off with that rally cry hundreds of years ago — no taxation without representation. Green card holders have taken important steps to become part of American society — they deserve representation just as much as anyone else does. 

Outgoing Mayor de Blasio should be honored that signing this bill can be a part of his legacy. If he doesn’t sign it when it reaches his desk, it will be part of Mayor-Elect Eric Adams’ legacy instead. 

Author: Hanna Johnson is a first year MPA-PNP student specializing in Advocacy and Political Action. Prior to Wagner, she spent three years at the ACLU leading communications strategies to reform our criminal legal system and end immigrant detention.