Emil Guillermo: The Pro-Democracy Movement Comes to New York City

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Lady Liberty is smiling broadly on New York City. Her torch, seeming dimmed, was forever shining as always.

What the New York City Council did on Thursday to give noncitizens voting rights should make everyone in our country proud.

The pro-democracy movement has finally come to America, and it’s about time.

We have seen America changing before our eyes in the other direction. Regressing. Getting smaller. Limiting opportunity. It was an America hell-bent on taking away rights from its people, from abortion rights to the fundamental right to vote.

But now things were going the people’s way. While some states like Texas and Georgia are trying to restrict voting rights, New York City is expanding rights and, allowing more of the people it governs to cast a ballot in local elections.

The measure extends the right to vote to all legal permanent residents (green card holders) and persons with a right to work in the U.S..

Not boat. Vote. You can vote now. You can be heard. You can be counted when it matters. You don’t have to be a citizen.

You are now recognized in New York City as voters.

That means the nearly 120,000 immigrants of Chinese descent in New York City, once formerly left out, voiceless and ignored in our democracy, now have a vote.

It means all those folks in Flushing have a new weapon after the floods in September failed to keep rising waters out of basement apartments.

That weapon to hold government accountable is called the vote.

You have more power today than yesterday.

You can now throw the elected bums out of office if they failed to do their jobs.

That’s democracy.

Other places like San Francisco have allowed noncitizens to vote in school board elections. But New York City is letting you vote in all the local matters. You can’t vote in federal or state elections. Not yet. But you can vote on the most important issues in your daily life.

If, as the saying goes, “all politics is local,” then focus on the grassroots, the sidewalks where you stand now. You now have a voice in all that affects you right where you live.

But why stop there? This pro-democracy movement can spread all over if people understand the Constitution.

Note: It doesn’t say, “We the Citizens.”

The phrase is “We the People.”

Just think how life might have been different if noncitizens could have voted when “West Side Story” first opened as a play, or as a movie. (It opens as a new Spielberg movie today. I hope it’s not “E.T” with songs?) What kind of story could have unfolded if the families and friends of Maria and Tony had more than a song and dance, but a real say in their lives.

So it’s fitting that the origins of the legislation comes from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Washington Heights.

Sure, there are people concocting legal challenges to try to stop the will of the council, and the people.

But the bill is DeBlasio proof. It can’t be vetoed. No doubt, Republicans who feel threatened will try to place obstacles. But the movement has begun.

The pro-democracy movement in America.


My mother was a non-citizen immigrant. She didn’t vote at first, and didn’t see the reason for it. My father voted and that was like a “family vote.”

So my mom was shut out willingly.

She was a lamb, never the aggressor. Always deferred. Led with love, and let the consequences occur. It was a stance of trust. When she came to America and found a better situation than the one she left, she was grateful and trustful in her new country that things would be done right on her behalf.

She was the naive immigrant. She filled out forms, became a permanent resident, a “green card” holder, and lived on the trust of others.

And then the trust was betrayed, and my Mom woke up.

Congress was taking away benefits for seniors. She was seeing her monthly check shrink.

One morning, she told me she had done something secretly. She had studied to become a citizen and was finally taking her oath.

After more than 30 years in America I asked her, why now?

Essentially, it was “Reaganomics,” the policies under President Ronald Reagan that cut social services to the poor and elderly.

But my mother didn’t say “Reaganomics.” That would have been too cute.

My mother, never a huge news consumer, was no dummy. She would have the TV news on at times, mostly to watch me as a reporter. But when I got back to see her, the TV was always on the show “MacGyver,” the guy who comes up with resourceful ways to fix problems. My mom would sit in the corner of the room with her rosary beads and watch that show.

And it must have dawned on her that her problem of a shrinking benefits check and cutbacks in government support needed some kind of a MacGyver-like fix. But the answer was actually simpler than a TV drama.

Becoming a citizen was the answer, and for just one reason.

“I have to vote now,” she said.

On Thursday, I looked at all the immigrants from Africa, the Dominican Republic, China, all over. And I saw the spirit of my mom.

New Yorkers, including noncitizens, finally have a voice in our democracy.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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