Civics Lessons From Immigrants

The United States has always relied on immigrant workers, but in the last few decades their numbers have risen to a new peak. By 2000, roughly one in eight U.S. workers, or 17 million people, were foreign-born. That's up from about one in 17 in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. From 1996 to 2000, thanks to the economic boom, the number of jobs in the United States rose by 6.7 million; immigrants filled just under half of those. Pay scales typically follow this hierarchy: native-born American citizens, naturalized American citizens, legal immigrants and permanent residents, guest workers and finally undocumented workers. Overall, foreign-born workers earned about 76 cents for every dollar earned by U.S.-born workers in 2000.

But the impact of immigrant workers goes beyond economics; it has political consequences for all workers. Because noncitizen immigrants can't vote, a large fraction of the working class ends up without a political voice, exploited by employers and resented by many native-born workers.

In the face of this vicious circle, the response of many immigrants has been creative, even inspiring. Despite their lack of the franchise, many immigrants have been adapting classic American models of civic participation and inventing new ways of being heard. In the workplace, immigrants are turning to unions, and vice versa. Many immigrants' groups are also joining get-out-the-vote and registration campaigns, and often helping to mobilize support for candidates even if they can't vote themselves. Many remain politically active in their home countries.

In some cities, including Chicago, New York and the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Md., immigrants have won the right to vote in certain local elections, particularly for school boards. Others are educating their fellow immigrants about their rights and responsibilities, and teaching them English. They've created membership organizations that provide financial help and moral support. There is a movement to have their consulates issue IDs that U.S. banks will accept in lieu of Social Security numbers. Immigrants are also pressing their homeland governments to lobby the United States for better treatment of their compatriots, here and at home.

Since the AFL-CIO embraced immigrants in 2000, reversing long-standing policy, several affiliate unions have intensified organizing and outreach efforts. The 1.5-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) delivered 1 million postcards to the White House last fall with a plea to legalize immigrants. The nonpartisan Center for Immigrant Democracy, which the SEIU founded in 2001, wants to mobilize newly enfranchised citizens, as well as "established" Americans who vote infrequently. Its get-out-the-vote slogan is, "My family votes 100 percent." The center and the Spanish-language television network, Univision, are planning to broadcast a presidential pre-primary debate in December focusing on issues important to immigrants: education, legalization, housing and living wages.

The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE) is spearheading an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride this fall, inspired by the Freedom Riders of the civil-rights movement. Immigrants and foreign-born citizens will board buses in nine cities on Sept. 20 and travel to Washington and New York to focus public attention on immigrant rights and reform.

The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!) has campaigned for college-aid assistance for undocumented immigrants who came here as children, as well as for funding to reduce the backlog in citizenship applications. In North Carolina, Latino and African American poultry workers are lobbying for better wages and working conditions. And the multiethnic Omaha Together One Community is supporting better working conditions for meatpackers.

Approximately 140 immigrant worker centers nationwide provide services and teach legal rights and leadership skills, according to Janice Fine, who is studying immigrant work centers for the Economic Policy Institute. These centers represent a modern-day version of the mutual-aid societies, fraternal-aid organizations and settlement-house movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which helped immigrants get a foothold in America, bury their relatives and friends, and care for the sick.

Community activists in New York's and San Francisco's Chinatowns and along the Texas-Mexico border formed the first modern-day worker centers in the late 1970s. Since then, centers have burgeoned in Latin American and Southeast Asian urban immigrant communities, often developing close ties to labor organizations. The centers have formed networks among themselves and with more established organizations such as the National Urban League and the NAACP. In Los Angeles, the Multi-ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network has mobilized Asian and Latino immigrants in various low-wage industries to promote legalization and workers' rights. And day-laborer groups in the United States and Mexico have formed the binational Electronic Network for Latin American Careers and Employment (ENLACE).

Outside the workplace, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights is engaging a broad spectrum of New Yorkers in an education effort to improve police-community relations after brutal attacks on Haitian immigrants in the late 1990s. Irish and Caribbean immigrants in Boston are working to get drivers licenses for immigrants, regardless of whether the immigrants are documented. In Brooklyn, African Americans and Caribbean and African immigrants manage a community credit union in an effort to build their neighborhood's economic base. In Queens, immigrants from the former Yugoslavia run a cultural education center, called RACCOON, whose aim is to promote understanding among and about people from the war-torn region.

Arab Americans are running voter-registration and naturalization drives, hosting civic-education workshops and lobbying Washington to rein in Attorney General John Ashcroft's campaign to require aliens to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In the 2002 elections, Arab American groups registered 250,000 new voters and ran 40 candidates for offices, 26 of whom won, according to the Arab American Institute.

Even as groups work to increase the number of immigrants who vote, other factors limit the ability of non-citizens to participate in public debate. Foreign-born workers in supposedly hard-to-fill occupations who come to the United States through temporary H-1B, L-1 and Special Agricultural Workers programs are at the whim of their corporate sponsors. That means they must accept their employers' terms or return to their home countries, leaving their rights severely limited. At the peak of the new-economy boom, Congress raised the annual limit on temporary worker visas to 195,000. (In 2001, 163,600 were approved; that cap, unless revised, will fall back to 65,000 on Sept. 30.)

The United States, paradoxically, has also quieted civic debate by resisting the idea of dual citizenship. While about 100 other nations allow their nationals to be citizens of a second country -- and many allow them to vote from abroad -- critics of the practice believe dual citizenship deters allegiance to the United States. However, in other countries it often turns out that migrant workers are able to earn more money and better protect their rights if they are citizens of both their native land and their newly adopted homeland. A good citizen is one who participates in civic life, not one who merely feels patriotic affinity.

The European Union provides a laboratory for multiple civic attachment. Currently, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Finland allow foreign residents to vote in local elections. So do some Swiss provinces. Since 1975, New Zealand has allowed all permanent residents to vote in general elections. The United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Iceland and Israel allow some form of local voting to foreigners with special cultural ties or reciprocity agreements. As T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Douglas Klusmeyer point out in their book, Citizenship Policies for an Age of Migration, existing political systems do not always make sense. "Why," the authors ask, "should [a European Union] citizen who has just recently moved to another member state enjoy a right to vote in a local election while a third-country national who has lived there for years but does not yet qualify for naturalization is excluded from participating in his or her city?"

That question is also relevant in the United States. Why should an immigrant who pays taxes, is affected by local voting decisions, and even risks his or her life by serving in the U.S. military be denied a voice in the community? The U.S. Constitution leaves this question to local communities to answer; an increasing number of them are deciding that immigrants deserve a local voice. In Manhattan, Dominican immigrants in 1986 carried out a major parent-registration drive to ensure that noncitizen parents exercised their right to vote in school-board elections. In the 1990s, several communities in Maryland and Massachusetts approved local voting rights for immigrants, although the Massachusetts legislature is unlikely to enact the necessary enabling measures.

A similar noncitizen voting effort made it onto San Francisco ballots last year as Proposition C, which would have allowed immigrants to be appointed to city boards, commissions and agencies. But voters rejected the measure, partly because they believed it would remove any incentive for immigrants to become citizens. Opponents of Proposition C unfortunately overlooked the fact that immigrants face backlogs of years and sometimes decades in their efforts to naturalize or even get legal permanent-resident status. (Those delays have grown longer since September 11, the result of increased security measures and an anti-immigrant political tide.) They also failed to take into account the distinction that advocates make between local elections, where local residents are direct consumers of services such as education, and national elections, where there is a stronger case that the franchise should be reserved for citizens.

Voting in local elections gives immigrants an unbeatable education in the American political system. There's no better preparation for eventual citizenship. We all benefit when new Americans think of themselves as full members of civil society.

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