In December 2021, the New York City Council passed Local Law 11, a bill to allow some 800,000 lawfully present noncitizens to vote in local elections. Supporters hailed it as a civil rights victory for everyone who calls the Big Apple home. At the time, their strongest argument, voiced by then-Speaker Corey Johnson, was also the simplest: “They are part of our community, and they deserve a say in local government.”
Nobody then could have foreseen that, 19 months later, more than 90,000 asylum-seeking migrants would descend on New York City, rapidly filling up 56,000 beds in publicly supplied shelters and hotel rooms. Had the law been implemented according to schedule, many of these migrants would have become eligible to vote in this year’s city elections upon receiving work authorization. They are currently ineligible because local Republicans won a court injunction last year. The case is currently working its way through an intermediate-level appeal.
The migrant crisis has undermined the law’s justification and revealed its practical shortcomings. Mayor Eric Adams shouldn’t wait for a final judgment from the Court of Appeals; he should withdraw his appeal and let the injunction stand.
To vote is to participate in an act of collective self-determination, which necessarily entails defining who does and does not belong to that collective. If you extend the franchise too broadly—say, to adolescents or inhabitants of another country—then some of those who exercise it will not have sufficient stake in or knowledge of the community. If you define voting rights more narrowly, then you risk preventing some from having a full and equal say in decisions that affect them.
Contemporary political understanding broadly recognizes citizenship as the most important relationship between a nation-state and its people. The right to make democratic decisions about a community is therefore usually linked to those who belong to that community—in other words, to citizens. Local Law 11 effectively sought to define New York’s political community as something distinct from U.S. citizenship. It established a new class of “municipal voter,” allowing individuals to register to vote in city elections if they’ve lived in New York City for a mere 30 consecutive days, are not U.S. citizens, and are legally authorized to work in the United States.
Many state and local leaders, including Mayor Adams and Governor Kathy Hochul, have urged the Biden administration to expedite migrant work authorization, such as by rescinding or shortening the six-month waiting period after filing a claim of asylum. But if Local Law 11 takes effect, expedited work authorization would enfranchise tens of thousands of individuals who potentially cannot or do not want to remain long-term residents of New York City.
Federal asylum protections apply only to those fleeing persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution, not dire economic conditions. Many recent asylum-seekers fled destitution in places like Venezuela and Colombia, not persecution for their politics, race, or religion. After a hearing, these individuals will be subject to deportation. Granted, this process could take years, and relatively few migrants have yet to apply formally for asylum with the federal government. But those circumstances could easily change; for example, the government could hire more immigration judges, speeding up the process.
Many migrants will indeed find ways to contribute positively to the city, and all deserve our sympathy after their trials in arriving in the U.S. Nevertheless, residing in city shelters and hotels for uncertain but limited durations complicates their ability to integrate seamlessly into their surrounding communities. After all, they didn’t choose their neighborhoods; the government has placed them in facilities across the city and sometimes even moved them from site to site. Having fled desperate poverty in their countries of origin, most are—quite understandably—largely interested in self-preservation, not in learning enough about the American system of government and local circumstances to become informed and conscientious voters.
It’s reasonable to assume, therefore, that the causes and candidates most motivating to these prospective new voters would be those who offer more generous short-term public assistance, such as the housing-voucher legislation that became law last month over Adams’s veto. City Hall estimates the law will cost $17 billion over five years.
Given their common situation and interests, it’s also reasonable to believe that migrants would tend to vote as a bloc or interest group, resulting in a potent force in low-turnout local elections. June’s primary races for city council, for example, saw fewer than 200,000 voters turn out citywide, out of 3.1 million active registered Democrats. Many races failed to break 10 percent of eligible voters. Most candidates won with a few thousand votes. Given this meager turnout, newly enfranchised migrants could meaningfully shape city council races, tempting primary challengers to woo them with promises of greater benefits.
The danger also arises that noncitizens will accidentally vote in state or federal elections. As I wrote early last year, even a single ballot containing federal or state races, handed to a noncitizen by a poorly trained or distracted poll worker, could spell serious trouble: loss of the opportunity for naturalization, fines and imprisonment, or deportation. In June, despite the odd-year election timing, the Bronx and Queens held primaries for district attorney, which is a state office. Having come only recently from countries with vastly different political systems, many migrants are unfamiliar with American federalism and may not know the difference between federal, state, and local races. And no one should count on the city Board of Elections to get things right consistently.
New York’s migrant crisis has caused the mayor enough frustration. Local Law 11 would only compound his headaches.
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