EDITORIAL — A civic life for noncitizens
- Published: October 31, 2019
“I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central. And let the rest of the world move to where I was.” — Toni Morrison
I don’t know what papers my great-grandmother carried with her when she arrived in the U.S. at age 17 from Germany. She was likely sponsored by a relative, perhaps a stepbrother, and would now be considered to have participated in “chain migration.” I know less about my 19th-century Irish ancestors, but they crossed what was essentially an open border. Today, they might be called “undocumented” and have few avenues to become a naturalized citizen of their chosen land.
Once proud to be a nation of immigrants, America is becoming increasingly hostile to those seeking a life here for many of the same reasons my forebearers did.
Yellow Springs, however, has taken steps to be a welcoming, safe and affirming place for immigrants. We have an anti-discrimination ordinance that says as much, and our police are instructed not to ask a person’s immigration status. When a beloved community member was caught in the snares of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency following a local traffic stop, residents raised money and their voices in support. Village leaders sent letters on his behalf, and he was granted a rare release on bond.
We have an opportunity to strengthen that stance with our upcoming vote on a charter amendment that would give any Yellow Springs resident, citizen or noncitizen, the right to vote on municipal matters. In recent letters-to-the-editor, some villagers have questioned whether that right should be extended to immigrants. I’d like to share my thoughts and dispel some myths.
I know many lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, who reside in the village. In fact, they are some of the most active members of our community, contributing to our diversity and enriching the spirit of our town. They pay their taxes, but cannot choose the representatives who decide how to spend them. Nor can they seek office themselves. The charter amendment reverses that unfair situation and invites them to be full members of our community.
Noncitizens without legal status would also be allowed to vote and run for office in recognition of their myriad contributions to the community and to the country. There are about 11 million people living in the U.S. undocumented, about the population of Ohio, with an estimated 90,000 living in our state. Nationally, they are gaining some rights: undocumented residents can get a driver’s licenses in 13 states and the District of Columbia, and they can vote in a dozen jurisdictions.
Sometimes called “illegals,” they’re not — an action can be illegal, a person cannot. While it is illegal to enter the U.S. without documents, it is not illegal to live here without them. A person who enters illegally is not a criminal, just as a driver who gets a speeding ticket is not one; both are misdemeanors and civil — not criminal — offenses. In contrast to claims that undocumented residents are taking resources away from citizens, they pay federal taxes, but cannot access benefits like Medicaid or Section 8.
Others ask, “Why can’t they just get in line and become legal like other immigrants?” In many cases there is no line, as the U.S. government has slashed the number of applications accepted for those seeking asylum, a college education, guest worker status or to join their family here. A sensible immigration policy would expand these opportunities, cutting down on illegal entry. The truth is that for many undocumented immigrants there is no path to citizenship if they came here illegally, or were brought here illegally as a child.
In the end, I can’t judge individuals — or characterize an entire group — without knowing their situation. It cannot be easy for someone to choose to live here without documentation, in fear they may be torn from their family, friends and community (or, for that matter, to come to the U.S. seeking asylum knowing they may be denied their right to do so under U.S. and international law). I don’t know what choice I would make in similar circumstances, but I know the choice my ancestors made in their time.
However they came, since they are now here, noncitizen residents should be treated with dignity and given a voice in our community, and a chance to serve.
Read more on the proposed charter amendment here.
This editorial was published in the Oct. 24 issue of the News.