San Francisco Gives Immigrant Parents a Voice Through Noncitizen Voting

The parent-led effort shows how cities can empower and protect noncitizens at a time of uncertainty for many immigrant families.
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Photo by anouchka / iStock.

After talking to other parents at her son’s San Francisco middle school in September, Ruiyi Li was thrilled to learn that she could soon participate in the local school board elections. As a green card holder with limited English proficiency, Li was one of many noncitizen parents not allowed to vote in local elections. As a result, she was unable to participate in the decision-making processes impacting her son’s education. But a measure on the ballot last fall promised to change that by offering her the right to vote in school board elections, regardless of her citizenship status.

Li was determined to help the measure, called Proposition N, pass. She spread the word to other recent immigrant parents, campaigned with the public official who proposed the measure, and spoke as a parent representative at press conferences.

“I was very happy when this proposition came up for a vote on the ballot,” Li, a Cantonese speaker, said through a translator. “I realized that there were many people who were pushing for [immigrant] parents’ rights and standing side by side with [us],” she added.

In November, her efforts came to fruition. Voters approved Proposition N, expanding voting rights for the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education elections to include noncitizens. Now Li and other parents or guardians with visas, green cards, or without documentation can elect members who represent immigrant families like theirs. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, about one third of the city’s population is foreign-born, although the school district does not collect the immigration status of parents.

For the first time since entering the U.S., Li will cast her vote for public officials in the November 2018 elections.

Who is allowed to enjoy American values and participate in democracy?

To Li and others who campaigned in favor of the measure, San Francisco’s parent-led efforts show how cities can empower and protect noncitizens at a time of uncertainty for many immigrant families. At the heart of it, the issue of noncitizen voting rights is an issue about national identity: Who is allowed to enjoy American values and participate in democracy?

San Francisco is one of the latest jurisdictions to expand voting rights to noncitizens. Others include Chicago, which grants all parents the right to vote in local school council elections, and six towns in Maryland that allow noncitizens to take part in local voting; Hyattsville, Maryland, also extended voting rights to noncitizens in December. New York City allowed noncitizens to vote in local school board elections until the city’s school boards were dissolved in 2002.

For Li, the ability to vote in her son’s school board elections gives her a sense of agency and belonging. She left behind everything familiar in the coastal town of Taishan, China, to reunite with her husband in San Francisco three years ago. At first, life wasn’t easy. The Li family moved into a cramped apartment building in Chinatown, where they had to share a bathroom and kitchen with other families. A silver lining was that the school district graciously welcomed Li’s then-9-year-old son. He didn’t know any English when he arrived to San Francisco, so teachers put him and other English-language learners into small groups of three students per teacher.

“I felt like the teachers were very caring in ensuring that the students were able to learn,” said Li.

Increased parent involvement could also help improve student outcome.

Now, San Francisco is known for sanctuary policies that limit law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials, but the city wasn’t always so welcoming to immigrants. Eric Mar, a lecturer at San Francisco State University and the former supervisor who authored the measure, was involved for about 20 years in previous failed attempts to expand voting rights to San Francisco’s noncitizens. He credits Proposition N’s successful passage last year to a shift in voter’s perceptions about immigrants, as well as outreach through grassroots organizing. Li and other parents’ stories helped counter some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric unleashed during the presidential campaign.

The school board is in need of more immigrant and Latino voices, Mar said. Allowing thousands of noncitizen parents the right to vote might not result immediately in more immigrants being elected, he noted, but it acknowledges that “immigrant parents and immigrant student’s needs are an important part of the school system.”

Increased parent involvement could also help improve student outcome. A 2002 report by the Southwest Educational Development Authority showed that students perform better when their parents are actively involved in their education.

“We recognize your contributions. We recognize your humanity.”

Moreover, the measure reestablishes a right that noncitizens previously enjoyed for most of U.S. history: In 40 states and federal territories, they were allowed to vote until the 1920s, when a large wave of Eastern European immigrants moved to the country, said Ron Hayduk, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University and author of Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States. The new residents were darker-skinned, practiced different religions, and had unfamiliar cultural practices compared to earlier Western European immigrants. Rising xenophobia followed projections at the time that the population would increasingly become nonwhite. “Sound familiar?” asked Hayduk.

Just as in the 1920s, voting rights still serve as a battleground. “If you can shape the scope of who gets the vote, you can shape who gets elected and thereby influence what policies get passed,” Hayduk said.

The issue of noncitizen voting rights also raises questions about American identity and values.

“This question about immigrant voting cuts to the heart of those questions: Who’s a member? Who’s a legitimate stakeholder?” Hayduk said. “What does it say about cherished American ideals such as ‘no taxation without representation’? What’s the nature of a democracy if portions of the population are excluded?”

To Hayduk, expanding voting rights to immigrants acknowledges their economic, social, and cultural impact on society. It says that “we recognize your contributions. We recognize your humanity,” Hayduk noted. “And we’re going to honor your voice.”

Although immigrant rights activists consider the San Francisco measure a victory, Li says, a palpable fear has spread among immigrant communities following the presidential election of Donald Trump, who has taken a hardline position on undocumented immigrants.

Just as in the 1920s, voting rights still serve as a battleground.

As sanctuary cities throughout the country scramble to learn how to protect their immigrant residents, a Proposition N implementation team in San Francisco is also seeking advice from community lawyers about how to counter fears. Since December, a group of parents, community organizers, school board members, and the Board of Supervisors has held monthly meetings to discuss outreach and implementation. The team is looking at other cities with similar immigrant voting policies to decide how to enfranchise parents while protecting their privacy and safety. “There’s so many people fearing that when you give information it might be used to tear you apart from your family or to deport you as well,” said Mar. In the future, the implementation team will launch outreach efforts to register parents to vote and to assuage concerns about outing their immigration status.

Li hopes that the outreach efforts will empower parents to exercise their right to vote. Her sixth-grade son can now speak English and is adapting well to school, thanks to the extra help from some of his teachers. Li hopes that the first vote she casts next year will encourage the district to meet immigrant families’ unique needs. She wants all schools to provide translation equipment and would like board members to hold parent meetings for the newly enfranchised so that they will continue to be actively engaged.

For now, she’s relishing the victory, but she knows that there’s still work to be done.