UPDATE: San Jose to explore extending voting rights to noncitizens
San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco proposes a measure on Jan. 10 that would allow immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to participate in local elections. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San Jose will explore a proposal to allow immigrants who are not U.S. citizens to participate in local elections.

After hours of passionate public testimony, the City Council voted 10-1 Tuesday night to explore a plan proposed by Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas to extend voting rights to noncitizen residents. Councilmember Dev Davis casted the lone dissenting vote.

Councilmembers will hold a study session on the proposal later this year to consider sending it to the ballot for voter approval.

“As representatives of people in our community, we have to make sure that we’re representing everyone in our community in the city of San Jose, including those who are not here legally and who are waiting for their citizenship status to come through the mail,” Arenas said.

The council also approved a plan to present voters with a change that would shift mayoral elections from midterm election years to presidential election years starting in 2024.

Lawmakers will also study a host of potential city law changes, including allowing ranked-choice voting, adding more council districts and  increasing police oversight—recommendations came from the Charter Review Commission, a body led by citizens appointed by the City Council. The commission spent nearly a year reviewing the city’s charter prior to making its final recommendations to the City Council.

Voters will still have the final say on the changes at the primary and midterm elections this year.

The proposal to extend voting rights would give more than 200,000 noncitizen residents in San Jose a right to select new lawmakers and weigh in on different policies in future local elections. New York City became the largest city to enact a similar law last month, while San Francisco passed a law in 2016 to allow noncitizen parents to vote in school board elections.

Carrasco and Arenas introduced the landmark proposal last Friday and held a news conference on Monday. They argue noncitizens in San Jose who pay taxes, contribute to the economy, and shape the city’s culture deserve a say in policies affecting their community.

“It’s only controversial because people are making it so,” Arenas said, adding that state law allows cities to extend voting rights to noncitizens at the local level.

Eva Heredia, a San Jose resident and community organizer, said the immigrant community has disproportionately bore the brunt of the pandemic, but can’t have a say in local policies affecting them. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

The proposal to extend voting rights in San Jose to all city residents—including those who are undocumented, on a work visa, or “Dreamers”—has been years in the making. The effort was postponed under the Trump administration, which stonewalled and attacked the path to citizenship for many, Carrasco said.

“(Many of them) have been here 20 years, trying to become U.S. citizens, and they’ve not been able to because the immigration system is broken,” she said. “There’s no line to get into.”

More than 100 residents called in to support the idea, as they urged the City Council to champion voting rights for all community members.

“It is a road to a more inclusive democratic and racially just San Jose,” resident Khari Crawford said. “This is the most important issue.”

The proposal to extend voting rights was not studied or recommended by the 23-member Charter Review Commission—as the other topics were—which prompted Councilmember David Cohen to tweet prior to the meeting that he wouldn’t support exploring the plan. Commission Chair Fred Ferrer said the commission did not study the idea because it did not come up during the year-long process.

Cohen changed his mind at the meeting, agreeing to have a study session about the change in voting law in San Jose. Some residents still took jabs at his earlier remarks.

“Trying to shut down a perfectly straightforward idea that expands democracy, as David Cohen suggested in his tweet today, it’s about the whitest thing you can do as a councilmember,” longtime resident Kim Guptill said.

Some residents also expressed shock and frustration that San Jose would consider allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections.

“It’s tantamount to having foreigners take over our city,” resident Brenda Dohmen said. “This is America and when you become an American citizen, you earn the right to vote.”

Several lawmakers noted the issue has stirred up emotions. Councilmember Maya Esparza condemned anti-immigrant sentiment that she saw in emails sent to the City Council regarding the voting rights proposal.

“We’ve received some appalling emails,” she said. “I won’t rehash the debates that are happening right now in Washington, DC, but again, we are a microcosm of these national debates. It’s up to us to really be mindful of which side of history we want to be standing on.”

Local community organizations and activists are rallying behind the plan. Eva Heredia, a leader with community group Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network, led a chant at the event Monday: “Here I live, here I vote.”

Heredia, a San Jose resident with two children, said the immigrant community has disproportionately been hit by the pandemic, as they have been the backbone that kept Silicon Valley moving. As a legal permanent resident, Heredia still can’t vote until she becomes a naturalized citizen. According to 2018 county data, there are roughly 366,000 immigrants living in Santa Clara County. The majority—roughly 208,000 people—have some form of legal protection.

“I’ve always heard the American saying no taxes without representation. Unfortunately… I live that reality,” she said. “It is time for (my) voice to be heard and taken into account.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter. 

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