United States / Voting Rights

Residents, Not Voters: Should Lawful Permanent Residents Be Allowed to Vote?

Looking back almost a year out from the day when America elected Donald Trump as president, I want to discuss the importance of voting. I am a legal permanent resident. What does this mean? In essence, I am a legal immigrant. But more technically, I am a lawful permanent resident, or a non-citizen who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. A person of this status is granted a permanent resident card, better known as a green card.  For all the debate about immigration in the United States, the voting rights of green card holders receive little to no attention.

Today, in order to vote in the United States, you have to be a U.S. citizen, eighteen years old by Election Day, meet state residency requirements, and be legally registered to vote. At this time, there are thirteen million legal permanent residents—nine million of whom are currently eligible to become citizens, though they have not yet applied for their citizenship test. Given the importance of voting, the surplus of legal permanent residents begs the question: what’s barring nine million legal residents from taking the next step, and can the process be streamlined? This article looks to answer this question, but at the same time it will explore a different angle—should the thirteen million legal permanent residents be allowed to vote, even if they have not taken the naturalization test?

The naturalization test is a test that all non-citizens have to take if they want to become U.S. citizens.  The requirements are as follows: “You are a green card holder of at least 5 years, must be 18 or older at the time of the filing, have lived within the state for at least three months prior to filing, be physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the 5 years, be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics), and finally be a person of good moral character, and be attached to the principles of the Constitution.” Additionally, the people that are filing for naturalization must also pay a filing fee of $800.

This is where problems begin to arise: many legal permanent residents are of low income, so paying $800 is a lot of money for them. For a family that earns $2000 a month, is paying $800 for a test that they may not pass economically feasible? Should this money be spent on a test or should they pay rent? If they pass this test, are they ready to give up their citizenship in their home country? Are they ready to become American?

These types of questions are some that run through immigrants minds. It took my grandparents eighteen years to become U.S. citizens. When I asked them why it took them that long, they replied with: “First, we had to learn a whole different language, then we had to go to school to learn American History and Government, and at an older age it is hard to learn different ideas and beliefs. After that both of us had to save $800 each in order to file our application. When you earn seven dollars an hour, it is extremely difficult to prioritize where your money goes; should I become a citizen, or should I save this money for rent and food?”

Apart from financial barriers, many legal residents feel as though they are not ready to become citizens because they do not feel “American” and often feel ostracized from American society. When speaking to other students about this issue, one student had to say this: “My dad is from the U.K. and he is eligible to become a citizen, but he hasn’t yet because if he becomes a U.S. citizen, then he would have to renounce his U.K. citizenship and he doesn’t want to do that.” For citizens both native and naturalized, the dilemma may seem abstracted, but for those on the other side of the equation, the dilemma shouldn’t come at the cost of participating in American politics. It’s a question of identity, not vocation, but American law doesn’t see it that way. Many critics believe that because of this, legal residents should have to be citizens first in order to vote. But if these people are contributing to American societies just like American citizens, why should they not be allowed to vote?

Many people believe that the rule that one has to be a citizen in order to vote should be abolished. Legal permanent residents contribute to society just as much as U.S. citizens. They pay taxes, which help the America’s economy, they send their children to public schools, and they even serve in the U.S. military. If they are willing to serve their country without being citizens, then shouldn’t they have the right to vote?

One commonly proposed qualifier? Paying taxes, which would give legal permanent residents the right to vote in local and state elections. As the argument goes, if they are paying taxes, then they should be allowed to voice their opinion on how these taxes are put to use. Many commentators would argue that if legal residents are being taxed and they are not able to vote on who should represent them in the government, America has returned to the days of taxation without representation. Legal residents contribute to society and they are members of the U.S. community, so it’s only fair that they be given the same benefits as other members of the community.

For me, this election was hard. Since I am a lawful resident, I cannot vote. I currently fall in the group of four million legal permanent residents who have not yet become citizens. Since my mom did not become a citizen in the time that I was a minor, I could not receive instant citizenship through her. Now, I have to apply for citizenship by myself, and this is a long and dragged out process in which I have to pay the filing fee.  I was frustrated throughout this election because I could not voice my own concerns, because I was not a citizen. Even though I have lived in this country since 2009, I did not have a say in who will be representing this country. I came to the United States when I was nine years old; I can hardly remember El Salvador. I basically grew up in the United States, so the fact that I was not allowed to be involved in the politics of the country that I consider home broke my heart. Many people in the United States had the opportunity to vote, but they chose not to for whatever reason. I am not saying that what they did was wrong, but for people like me that cannot vote, voting rights are extremely important and should be exercised.

From 1776 to 1926, there were forty states in the U.S. and its territories that allowed noncitizens to vote in local, state, and even federal elections. Gradually, these rights were repealed. This was due to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many immigrants during this time period were in favor of abolishing slavery. Fearing this sentiment, many states stripped immigrants of their voting rights, fearing that immigrants would become a powerful anti-slavery voting bloc. During the Red Scare, more states began to repeal this norm; they wanted immigrants to prove their “loyalty” to the country because they feared that if they voted against and for specific laws, then they could have an ulterior motive that could potentially harm the United States.

There are currently many countries that allow non-citizens to vote. For example, Chile, New Zealand, Portugal, and many others allow legal permanent residents to vote in their national elections. None of these countries have run into any trouble since they started allowing legal residents to vote. On the contrary, more people became involved in the country’s politics. By allowing everyone that positively contributes to the U.S. to be able to vote, people can vote for laws that affect the country as a whole. These problems are not getting any better under the Trump Administration. Under the administration that brought us the Muslim Ban, and repealed the DREAM Act, the question of voting is an issue of how we treat people justly, and one that bears close examination looking forward to the 2020 elections.