Voting by Moxie

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Having sole responsibility for raising four boys has not stopped Teresita Gatón from becoming involved in her Bushwick community. Two years ago, the Dominican native tested 100 homes for lead paint hazards with a local community group. Lately, she’s been spending several afternoons a week talking to neighbors about asthma management. “Some days I work, then run home to cook lunch, then run back to do more work until the evening,” says Gatón. “We need to do a lot of work to improve this community.”

Yet she says her efforts can only go so far. “Not being a voter, it’s harder to tell politicians to change the laws,” says Gatón, a permanent resident. “It is a frustration because you know that laws are the best way to make a lot of changes.” Her predicament is strikingly common. Of the city’s 2.2 million immigrants of voting age, roughly half can vote legally; and though tens of thousands have completed citizenship applications, the wait often stretches for years. But this disenfranchisement has done little to dampen political involvement for many of the newest New Yorkers.

As the largest wave of immigration in a century washes over New York City, the newcomers are finding myriad alternative ways to take part in the electoral process. “There’s a lag between demographics and citizenship, but a smart political organization will bring in people from newer immigrant groups,” says Bob Liff, a political consultant with George Arzt Communications and a longtime observer of city politics. “The genius of the Democratic party machine was to bring in Irish immigrants in the 1870s and 1880s, and Italian and Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. In the last decade or two, people from the Caribbean, Spanish-speaking and Creole-speaking communities have been doing something similar,” says Liff. “It doesn’t take a demographic genius to see that the future of this city is in increasing the involvement of the people who are going to be future voters.”

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As the city’s foreign-born population has grown, so has the understanding that voting isn’t the only way to enter the political realm. “Whether they are able to vote or not, immigrants can have a great impact on political campaigns,” says Bill Lipton, deputy director of the Working Families Party and long-time organizer on the New York City political circuit. “They can contribute money, they can volunteer, phone bank, go door-to-door. I’ve seen noncitizens deliver hundreds of votes,” says Lipton, discussing recent council races. “Any campaign not looking at noncitizens is not doing all it can.”

That’s precisely the way some in the union and community organizing world see it. “We’ve always done a lot of political work with the immigrants in our membership,” says Nelson Valdez, an organizer with the progressive SEIU Local 32BJ, which represents building services workers in New York and New Jersey. Undocumented immigrants are permitted to join labor unions, and 32BJ frequently taps its members for political work regardless of their citizenship status–as long as they’re not performing activities, such as petition-gathering, that require citizenship. “A lot of communities, like the Dominican community, have a history of strong political participation,” says Valdez. “Extending that work to people outside of our membership [and] working with community organizations just makes sense.” To wit, Valdez’s focus for this election cycle is to ramp up Latino voter education and participation in Manhattan with the Dominican Power Vote project, a coalition of union and community organizations.

Groups that work with immigrants have traditionally had more luck with community-based campaigns–and with good reason, says Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the Latin American Integration Center, based in Woodside, Queens. “We’ve worked mostly on issues directly related to defending immigrants’ rights and getting greater access to health, education, housing,” she says. “There are a lot of fronts for action, but we have to make hard choices on how to use our limited resources.” [See “Close Up,” below]

Political insiders increasingly view immigrant communities as resources in their own right–not for votes, but for volunteers. In 2001, Hiram Monserrate won a city council seat, defeating the Queens Democratic machine, in part by marshaling a dedicated field operation. “We had dozens of noncitizens coming to volunteer, to hand out flyers, march with us at events,” says Julissa Ferreras, Monserrate’s chief of staff. Without that much manpower, says Ferreras, many campaign tasks would have been impossible. With an operation based on one-to-one contact, the final week of Monserrate’s campaign took two people per staircase, at five subway exits, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. It was a critical job–and one you didn’t need a U.S. passport to do, says Ferreras: “When you’re giving out flyers, no one is going to ask who’s a citizen.”

Indeed, volunteering is often the only way for noncitizens to take part in politics during their first decade here. Once immigrants attain permanent residency, they must complete a five-year residency requirement; in the five boroughs, they then face the country’s largest backlog of citizenship applications–126,000 last year, according to federal immigration statistics. The average wait to complete the process hovers around three and a half years; immigration guidelines aim for nine months. With such a long wait–plus sizable populations of undocumented immigrants, most of whom will never be citizens–some neighborhoods have a majority of residents unable to vote. Between half and two-thirds of residents in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst are noncitizens–roughly 30,000 to 40,000 people–according to the 2000 Census. Most are voting-age adults, since any children born here automatically gain citizenship. In another two-dozen tracts nearby, noncitizens make up between one-third and one-half of residents; similar clusters dot Flushing and Astoria in Queens; Washington Heights in upper Manhattan; and the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx.

The lag time worries John Mollenkopf, a City University of New York Graduate Center professor who has written extensively on immigrants and politics. “It’s not good for democracy to write off a substantial chunk of our adult population,” he says, noting that half of the households in New York City are headed by immigrant parents. “How can you have so many people not represented?”

The long wait is just part of the process, says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit think tank that favors immigration restriction. “A lot of people want mass immigration without any cost, have their cake and eat it too,” he says, attributing the delays to heightened security post-9/11. “As for backlog, you’re not being disenfranchised. You’re dealing with an inefficient bureaucracy–welcome to America.”

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There is a way around the citizenship hustle, says Ron Hayduk, a codirector of the Immigrant Voting Rights Project, a national group. Locally, Hayduk’s organization is pushing for a radical expansion of the voting public: letting noncitizens vote in local elections. “It would…[make] city politicians accountable to all the people in their district,” reasons Hayduk. It would also resonate with a basic tenet of American democracy, says Mollenkopf: “People contribute to the tax base–they pay sales, income and property taxes–and there’s the simple logic of the American Revolution: no taxation without representation.”

That, according to Krikorian, is faulty logic. “The idea that municipal elections are okay to give to noncitizens, and national elections are not, assumes that someone can be a citizen of New York but not of the country,” he says, adding that there are many ways to become an American before casting a vote. “There are other things you should be participating in: joining your union local, the PTA, your local neighborhood association. All those things are practice for participating as a full citizen when you go through the process.”

Political observers consider the concept a long shot for New York; similar legislation considered at the state level in 2003 failed. In New York City, a bill has been drafted, but at press time only nine of the city’s 51 council members had signed on as sponsors. The bill has gathered support from two Democratic mayoral hopefuls, Fernando Ferrer and Virginia Fields; Mayor Bloomberg and Democratic mayoral contender Gifford Miller both came out against it. Still, says Hayduk, the idea has gained traction in other high-immigration areas; a few counties in Maryland, as well as Cambridge and Amherst in Massachusetts, currently allow the practice.

Marcelino Rodriguez is hopeful that New York will follow. A native of Mexico City, Rodriguez came to East Elmhurst, Queens 10 years ago. He was never interested in politics in his home country, and did not venture into that realm here, either. He did, however, find a calling in local school issues. When he and other parents realized their elementary school didn’t have gym classes, Rodriguez helped organize a successful campaign to change the situation.

“We all have to work where we are, work within our communities first,” says Rodriguez, who has been content to remain a permanent resident because he and his wife have thought about returning to Mexico. But when the city eliminated school boards last year, it removed Rodriguez’s only opportunity to vote; school board elections were open to parents of students, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.

The more active Rodriguez became in his community, he says, the more he became intrigued with the political process. This fall, he’s planning to go door-to-door and talk to voters for the November elections with New York Votes, a citywide coalition of unions and community groups [see “Close Up”, below]. But he’s clear about what he’d really like to do: Cast a vote of his own. “We need to vote to become better integrated to our communities,” he says. “Many of us don’t feel very integrated, and therefore feel little responsibility.” With only about a quarter of Jackson Heights’ residents able to vote, he says, “the minority is speaking for the rest.” •

This text has been corrected since its original posting.

Carolina González is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.

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SIDEBAR: Close Up: New York Votes
A new initiative gives community groups high-tech training to push issues citywide.

Engaging immigrant groups in formal political work has always been a challenge: Most organizations working with immigrant groups are small, community-based, and focus on immediate needs like housing, translation services and jobs. Even when groups consider pursuing formal politics, get-out-the-vote work has become a high-tech, complicated business–a big reach for scrappy grassroots groups run on shoestring budgets.

Enter New York Votes, a coalition of about 10 unions and community groups citywide. Launched in June, the project aims to offer entrée to local politics. “Groups who had not in the past seen electoral politics as a priority have seen that [it] is part of their work, too,” says Gouri Sadhwani of New York Civic Participation Project, one of the coalition partners.

Getting involved with NYVotes made sense to Andrew Friedman, executive director of Make the Road by Walking, a prominent Bushwick-based community group that’s part of the coalition. “Seeing how all our issue campaigns eventually had to go through elected officials, our members felt it was important to get our folks trained to do electoral work to leverage our power,” he says.

But the real hook, says Irene Tung, an organizer at Make the Road, was the potential to make an impact outside of Bushwick. “Our members want to see how their work is amplified on a city level,” says Tung, adding that her group has traditionally done issue-based work around city policies but hasn’t focused on get-out-the-vote efforts. “Mobilizing 10,000 or 15,000 voters collectively with the other groups makes them feel like they’re having a real impact, not just in Bushwick but in the city as a whole,” says Tung.

“City Council elections are often decided by 10,000 people,” says Mike Rabinowitz, political director at Jobs With Justice, which is backing the project. Organizers aim to recruit up to 150 volunteers across the city who will in turn organize issue-based, get-out-the-vote work in low-turnout districts. Ten volunteers can likely reach about 1,000 residents, estimates Rabinowitz, “so you can be talking to 10 percent of an electorate for a City Council race.” The idea is to amass enough of a base to not merely raise awareness on issues like increasing language access in hospitals and schools, but to help voters make more informed voting decisions.

The project represents a hybrid of the issue-based work that community groups specialize in and efforts to highlight specific concerns at the ballot box. In part, the model draws on efforts already pioneered locally by groups like the Working Families Party, which has made neighbor-to-neighbor contact a standard feature of its door-knocking campaigns. It’s also slated to use the high-tech voter outreach models typical of New York City campaigns, which use complicated databases and constantly update voter contact information. “It lets community groups do sophisticated electoral work without each making big up-front investments for software or training,” says JWJ’s Rabinowitz, also an experienced campaign staffer. “This lets them push issues citywide.”

There’s just one restriction: NYVotes, with nonprofit status, can’t endorse specific parties, let alone candidates. And that, says Bill Lipton, deputy director of the Working Families Party, inevitably undercuts its strength. “I think the biggest impact that a project like NYVotes can have is [to] disseminate skills–learning how to work off registered voter lists, be systematic,” says Lipton. “The immediate political impact is minimal. If it were in a battleground state, and all the immigrant voters were Democrats, doing straight turnout would be very effective at getting influence. As is, it’s not.”

–CG

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SIDEBAR: Come On In
Five groups aim to bring immigrants into the political fold, citizens or not.

New York Votes
Founded: 2005
Type: Nonpartisan
People Involved: 5,000–10,000
History: Roughly 10 unions and community groups–many of them rooted in immigrant communities–pool resources to push issues citywide.

Dominican Power Vote
Founded: 2004
Type: Nonpartisan
Members: 500–1,000
History: A panoply of Dominican community and political organizations join with Service Employees International Union Locals 32BJ and 1199 to run Latino voter identification, registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns. Efforts will be concentrated in Dominican neighborhoods from Washington Heights to big NYC-emigration centers like Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

Latina PAC
Founded: 2004
Type: Political Action Committee
People Involved: 80
History: Formed by politically active Latinas who felt limited by restrictions on nonprofit work, the group raises money for and endorses candidates who support issues of importance to Latinas.

New York Immigration Coalition
Civic Participation Projects

Founded: 2004
Type: Nonpartisan
People Involved: 3,000-4,000
History: Most recently, NYIC registered 225,000 voters in New York City for the presidential election–but that didn’t translate into new leverage for immigrants. “No one paid attention to New York in 2004 because it is assumed a Democratic stronghold and was written off,” says Randy Quezada, who runs NYIC’s civic participation projects.

New York Civic Participation Project
Founded: 2002
Type: Nonpartisan
People Involved: 1,000-3,000
History: Housed at SEIU 32BJ, this group brings together unions and community-based organizations from three boroughs to conduct leadership training for voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote efforts.