Should Immigrants Be Able to Vote?

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Paul Krugman is still uneasy about large-scale immigration, judging from his column on Friday. Unskilled immigration, he says, depresses the wages of low-skilled workers. Well, yes, but again, with properly-designed policies—living wages, full employment, labor laws that allow unions to flourish, earned-income tax credits, and the like—I think you can mitigate this, while preserving the very, very large benefits immigration brings for immigrants and the countries that send them. It’s awfully odd to think that shutting the border is really the best possible thing we can do for low-skilled native workers.

But okay, we’ve been over that. This passage in Krugman’s Friday piece, on the other hand, is new and deserves comment:

Imagine, for a moment, a future in which America becomes like Kuwait or Dubai, a country where a large fraction of the work force consists of illegal immigrants or foreigners on temporary visas — and neither group has the right to vote. Surely this would be a betrayal of our democratic ideals, of government of the people, by the people. Moreover, a political system in which many workers don’t count is likely to ignore workers’ interests: it’s likely to have a weak social safety net and to spend too little on services like health care and education.

This isn’t idle speculation. Countries with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations — often the result of immigration — tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous populations.

Well, I agree. Creating a Dubai-style underclass of disenfranchised immigrants who have few rights and even less voice in the country they help prop up is an awful idea. That’s why everyone should oppose “guest worker” policies that allow companies to import a captive labor force that are here at the mercy of their employers, can’t bargain for better wages, speak out against shoddy work conditions, or organize and strike. But I’d go even farther. Why should non-citizens have to be disenfranchised? Why not just let anyone living here legally vote?

It seems a bit crazy, but it’s worth putting out there. Non-citizen immigrants seem to be constitutionally barred from voting at the federal level in any case, but nothing’s stopping anyone from giving them the vote in state and local elections. And why not? Presumably immigrants should have a say in, for instance, what goes on in the schools they’re sending their kids to. And it’s perfectly possible: Takoma Park in Maryland allows non-citizens to vote, although I don’t think it’s affected voter participation or local politics very much there. (San Francisco has considered similar measures at various points, too—it’s unsettling, by the way, that 4.6 million people in California, one-fifth of the state population, can’t vote.)

Who knows, a bit of civic participation might even make immigrants more “patriotic” or “assimilated” or whatever it is nativists worry about. (Even though the evidence shows that even Hispanic immigrants are assimilating just fine.) At the very least, non-citizen voting would help prevent the United States from turning into another Dubai. It’s just not very likely to happen, although maybe a well-placed and influential New York Times columnist could do his part to help this idea gain momentum…

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