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A Dominican American's push for a voting change in nation's most populous city

“How do we accept to live in a society where people pay taxes," Ydanis Rodríguez says, "without having the voice to elect their leaders?”
Image: Ydanis Rodriguez
Ydanis Rodríguez.Mary Altaffer / AP file

The goal of expanding voting to more than 800,000 residents in the nation's most populous city was personal for Ydanis Rodríguez.

Rodríguez, 56, said he's one of the "more than 35 percent of New Yorkers who have been born and raised in another country and have adopted this city as their home."

This year, Rodríguez became New York's first Latino transportation commissioner under the city’s new mayor, Eric Adams.

But months before, as a New York City Council member, Rodríguez was the main sponsor of a piece of legislation that became law last month. It allows lawful permanent residents, or green card holders, to vote in city elections. The law also allows New Yorkers who are legally authorized to work in the U.S., including those with temporary protected status or young immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to cast ballots in municipal elections.

“I was one of those people who had a green card from 1983 to 2000, who contributed, who paid my taxes, who should have the opportunity to vote for the mayor, for the comptroller, for the public advocate, for the council member or borough president who will be deciding how to spend our tax dollars,” Rodríguez told NBC News. “How do we accept to live in a society where people pay taxes without having the voice to elect their leaders?”

Rodríguez grew up in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York City in 1983, when he was 18. He worked many jobs, including washing dishes, driving a cab and serving food in a cafeteria. He put himself through college, studying political science, and eventually became a teacher, which was his profession for 15 years.

In New York City, immigrants pay close to $85 billion in taxes each year, according to the New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization.

Nationwide, immigrant residents contribute close to $500 billion in taxes every year, including nearly $3 billion in taxes from immigrants with temporary protected status and more than $6 billion from DACA recipients and other young immigrants without legal status.

While smaller cities in Vermont and Maryland have implemented similar laws, New York City is the first major city to do so.

Excited to 'join the pack' of voters

The new law only applies to city elections; those who are not citizens remain unable to vote for president or members of Congress in federal races or in the state elections to elect the governor, judges and legislators.

But for New Yorker Yatziri Tovar, 29, it's a step forward. Tovar, who is Mexican American, has been in the city since she was 2 years old. A former DACA recipient, she became a lawful permanent resident in 2019.

“Even though it’s not state or federal elections, it’s just the city elections, it does give me a kind of relief or that excitement that now I’m joining the pack, too,” Tovar said.

Tovar added that she feels excited to "vote on behalf of my parents," who were among the thousands of essential city workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, working as delivery drivers or domestic cleaners, though they lack legal immigration status.

“It’s a great step forward to be able to bring those protections, those rights that our communities need,” Tovar said about the vote.

Growing numbers

The new law was co-sponsored by 34 of the council’s 51 members, many of them Latino. Of the 11 Latino members, four were of Dominican descent, including Rodríguez, reflecting the growing numbers and rising political clout of the Dominican American community.

An estimated 700,000 Dominicans like Rodríguez live across New York City’s five boroughs, making them the city’s fastest-growing Latino population and one of the nation’s largest Latino groups.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., made history in 2016 as the first Dominican American elected to Congress. Currently, about a dozen New York State Assembly members are of Dominican descent.

New York City Council members have been trying to give legal residents who aren't citizens the right to vote in municipal elections for the past two decades, Rodríguez said. But the first official bill was introduced in 2009, the same year Rodríguez joined the City Council.

"This is something that came out as a result of a great coalition, not only of recent immigrants, but of people who have compassion," he said.

Image: New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez during a rally ahead of a City Council vote to allow lawful permanent residents to cast votes in elections to pick the mayor, City Council members and other municipal officeholders, in New York on Dec. 9, 2021.
New York City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez during a rally ahead of the City Council vote to allow lawful permanent residents and others authorized to work in the U.S. to cast votes in city elections on Dec. 9.Mary Altaffer / AP file

Advocacy groups and policy organizations such as the New York Immigration Coalition, which worked to support the legislation, are transitioning toward ensuring the law gets implemented as anticipated.

Republican legislators filed a lawsuit Jan. 10 seeking to stop the new law from being implemented and challenging its constitutionality.

Anu Joshi, director of immigration policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, said it's unlikely that the legal challenge will significantly delay the city’s plan for eligible New Yorkers to vote in the 2023 municipal election.

“We have done our own years of legal analysis and research, and we know that this bill is legal under both the New York state Constitution and the U.S. Constitution,” Joshi said. “We have also had the opportunity to learn from other counties and cities across the country that have already implemented noncitizen voting in local elections.”

The Board of Elections is expected to begin drawing an implementation plan this summer, including voter registration rules and provisions that would create separate ballots for municipal races.

Rodríguez is optimistic about the impact the new voting law can have on immigrant families, locally and nationally.

"That's how we are strengthening our democracy," Rodríguez said.

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