Don't Give Noncitizens the Vote

Recent proposals to relax election requirements would ill serve the national interest

By Mark Krikorian on April 26, 2004

Newsday, April 26, 2004

"Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God."

So said Ruth to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi, as they prepared to leaves Ruth's homeland and move to Judah. The passage sets the stage for America's own citizenship oath: "I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty ... "

This helps us understand why noncitizens should not be allowed to vote.

When a foreigner becomes an American it is as though he or she, like Ruth, is adopting a new religion. Of course, part of the genius of America is that they don't have to change their actual religion and can believe anything they please about the Almighty. But they adopt a new "civil religion," based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that combine with our history and our evolving culture to make us American.

There are few other places where this is possible. Newcomers to countries where membership is based on common race or ethnicity can never really become full members. Someone who is Irish after all, can't become Japanese, nor can a Mexican become Somali. And yet, last year, nearly half a million foreigners became Americans, a number that's likely to be higher this year.

But it is precisely because America is not held together by blood that recent proposals to let noncitizens vote are so dangerous. If Korea or Hungary or Swaziland permitted foreigners to vote, it wouldn't necessarily blur the boundaries of their national communities, because voting isn't what makes you Korean or Hungarian or Swazi in the first place. But, for us, voting is like a sacrament of America's civil religion, part of what makes you an American, and extending the vote to noncitizens eliminates one of the few remaining unique characteristics of being an American citizen.

The proposal floated by New York City Council members Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) and John Liu (D-Flushing) and by various self-serving advocacy groups, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg rejected earlier this month, would have extended the vote only to legal immigrants who weren't citizens yet. But last year a Chicano Studies professor at UCLA called for an amendment to the California state constitution allowing all noncitizens to vote, including illegal aliens.

It's certainly important to encourage legal immigrants to become American citizens. The federal government doesn't bear all the responsibility here. State and local governments, corporations, churches and fraternal organizations all have an obligation to help newcomers learn our language and our history, participate in the day-to-day rituals of American life, and ultimately join us as citizens.

And it's true that processing bottlenecks have dragged the citizenship process out far too long for too many people. In some parts of the country, it can take two years to go from filing citizenship papers to being sworn in as an American. As frustrating as this is, immigrants need to understand that the country they want to belong to is in a protracted war against ruthless enemies, and security demands will cause certain inconveniences for all of us.

But trying to compensate for bureaucratic delays by extending voting rights to noncitizens is a cure worse than the disease. Membership in any group requires that certain standards be maintained, and those who don't meet the requirements don't get in. Full membership in the American people is open to all legal immigrants, and the requirements aren't that difficult to meet. The least we can expect is that immigrants formalize their commitment to our nation before we let them participate in making decisions for us.

To go back to the religion analogy: You have to be baptized before taking communion, you have to be bar mitzvahed before being counted toward a minyan - and you should become a citizen before you can vote.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.