'Give Us a Chance': Noncitizens in San José Could Potentially Be Allowed to Vote

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The worker wears a face mask and stands in a room with many machines and stacks of envelopes.
A worker sorts ballots at the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters office on Sept. 14, 2021, in San José. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

San José has moved one step closer to giving noncitizens a voice in local elections. The city council voted Tuesday night to direct city officials to study the potential impacts of changing the city charter to allow noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections.

Once staff has completed the review, council members will decide whether to put the question to voters with a ballot measure for either this year's June primary or November general election.

Tuesday's decision invigorated organizers who have been working for years to enfranchise immigrants in San José, regardless of their citizenship status.

"This is a place where we live, where we grew up, where our children grew up," said Esther Meléndez, a 30-year San José resident. She was one of about 200 people who called into the meeting in support of expanding voting rights.

"It is frustrating to not be able to vote for something that is important," said Meléndez, who is a legal permanent resident in the process of obtaining citizenship.

The council's decision comes at the conclusion of a year-long review of the city charter, led by an independent commission. Earlier this month, the commission released its recommendations — including  allowing noncitizens to serve on city boards and holding mayoral elections in the same year as presidential elections.

The commission did not address the question of noncitizen voting. However, last week, two members of the council, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas, issued a memo recommending that city officials study expanding voting rights to noncitizen immigrants, including those who lack legal authorization to be in the country. In a matter of days, a coalition of South Bay immigrant advocacy groups mobilized a large campaign to voice support at Tuesday's meeting.

"This would be a step forward in acknowledging the contributions of our immigrant communities, who provide this country with labor and financial benefits through the taxes they contribute," said José Servín, director of advocacy and communication with the nonprofit Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, which has pushed for years for the city to expand voter eligibility.

Roughly 40% of San José residents were born outside the United States, according to recent U.S. Census figures. While many have become naturalized citizens, many others have not. The share of foreign-born residents in San José is higher than in San Francisco and on par with New York City. San Francisco has allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections since 2016. And in December, New York City granted legal immigrants the right to vote in all local elections. In addition, 11 municipalities in Maryland and two in Vermont permit noncitizen voting.

Major tech companies with headquarters in the city, such as Zoom and Adobe, depend heavily on foreign-born workers in both technology and service jobs. Immigrants also propel many essential services and thousands of small businesses and power the city's unique cultural and culinary landmarks.

"Thanking our essential workers who are risking their lives … is meaningless if we don't give them the rights, that I believe they deserve, to enact change in their own lives," said Councilmember Carrasco during Tuesday's meeting. She added that there are roughly 157,000 undocumented immigrants living and working in Santa Clara County who currently do not have a viable path to citizenship.

The lone dissenting vote Tuesday was cast by Councilmember Dev Davis, who is also a candidate for mayor. She argued that voting should be considered a right and responsibility exclusive to citizens.

"[Noncitizens] have allegiance to another country," said Davis. "They, hopefully, wherever they come from, have the right to vote in that country."

Other critics expressed concern that the measure only requires a person to have lived in San José for 30 consecutive days by election time to be eligible to vote — similar to the model adopted by New York City in their voter expansion.

"How does someone who's been there for 30 days even know what's going on politically?" Shane Patrick Connolly, chair of the Santa Clara County Republican Party, told KQED.

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"We have people who have lived in the community a long time who maybe haven't gone through the citizenship process but here's an incentive for them to do so, if you get to have a say through a vote," he said.

Meléndez, the San José resident who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, will become a naturalized citizen later this month. She says that she's very excited about becoming an American citizen but shared her frustration that the process has taken years and that, in that time, she has lacked a voice in local government.

"Give us a chance," she said, appealing to those reluctant to support voter expansion. "Give us a chance to share ideas, share what is needed to make sure that San José can be an even greater city."

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