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Want to stop America's slide toward authoritarianism? Give all immigrants the right to vote

Immigrants don't threaten democracy unless we choose to exclude them from democracy.
Image: Yesenia Aguilar, Denalli Urdaneta
Yesenia Aguilar of Reading, Pennsylvania, holds her one-year-old daughter Denalli Urdaneta at an immigration rally on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23.Andrew Harnik / AP file

Since the rise of Donald Trump, many pundits have argued that immigration undermines American democracy and American unity. In a recent controversial column at the New York Times, for example, Ross Douthat suggested that restricting immigration is reasonable given the fact that "increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics."

Along the same lines, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, during Trump's campaign in 2016, declared that "those who dismiss anti-immigrant sentiment as mere racism have missed several important aspects of moral psychology related to the general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order." Immigrants, Haidt and Douthat argue, are heterogenous, troubling and, from the perspective of plenty of white Americans, destabilizing. As such they must be controlled, excluded, or rejected.

It's true that immigration as an issue has poisoned political discussion in the last several years, and that it also helped fueled Trump's rise to power. Currently, the question of what to do with the undocumented immigrants first brought to the United States as children and now known as Dreamers remains a painful pressure point in Congress. But the debate raging over immigration isn’t really about the immigrants themselves. Disempowered and marginalized, even high achieving immigrants are unable to defend themselves in the face of authoritarian demagoguery. Foreign-born people are more than 13% of the US population; a little more than half of those are non-citizens. That means that there are many millions of non-citizens living in the US without a voice in government.

Disempowering millions of people undermines democracy, and creates an opening for hate-mongers and authoritarians. The solution is not to deport immigrants, or close the borders. The solution is to give all immigrants — including non-citizens — the right to vote.

Giving immigrants the vote sounds radical and implausible. But in fact, though, there is a long tradition of immigrant voting rights in the United States, according to Ron Hayduk, a political science professor at San Francisco State and the author of "Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the United States." Between 1776 and 1926, Hayduk's research shows, up to 40 states permitted immigrants to vote in local, state and federal elections. The practice was discontinued because of growing prejudice and anti-immigrant sentiment in the early 20th century — a time that historian Rayford Logan has referred to as the nadir of race relations in the United States.

New York City restored immigrants' right to vote in school board elections in 1968, though that practice ended in 2002. Maryland is the state in which immigrant voting is most widely allowed; a number of small cities and towns allow non-citizen residents, including undocumented immigrants, to vote in local elections.

The argument for allowing immigrants to vote is based in the earliest American arguments for democracy, Hayduk told me. "The revolutionary cry was 'no taxation without representation.' And even if you're undocumented, you can't get away without paying taxes. The basic idea of democracy is that governments should be accountable to the people and the way you make it accountable to the people is that you give them the capacity to vote."

Giving immigrants the vote sounds implausible. But there is a long tradition of immigrant voting rights in the United States.

Hayduk notes that immigrant voting provides other benefits as well. When immigrants can vote in school board elections, for example, they are more involved in the school. Children are more successful when parents participate in their education, and successful children provide both a short and long-term benefit to communities.

But perhaps even more importantly, democracies in which large numbers of people are disenfranchised can quickly cease to be democracies. The American South during the Antebellum period was not a democracy, but a vast gulag, in which millions of people were enslaved and tortured at will. In order to enforce this, Southern legislators passed sweeping laws to restrict the publication or dissemination of abolitionist literature, while abolitionist leaders were subjected to mob attacks. African America slaves, of course, were regarded as property and not granted any right to representation or enfranchisement.

The link between President Donald Trump's hatred of immigrants and his authoritarianism is anything but subtle. One of his central campaign promises was to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — promoting a vision of the U.S. as a walled fortress. Under Trump's administration, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has become an arbitrary, totalitarian police force. ICE has staked out hospitals and schools in order to incarcerate and deport people seeking medical care, or trying to provide their children with an education.

A police force with no accountability to the people it targets is a danger not just to the people who are arrested, but to the notion of democracy itself. Similarly, Trump has repeatedly used stigma against immigrants to undermine the rule of law, insulated from repercussions by the knowledge that many of those he insulted have little to no political recourse. Every Latino living in America is more easily stigmatized when the vote is denied to Latino immigrants, just as democracy is threatened for everyone in the U.S. when large numbers of people are prevented from using the ballot box.

A police force with no accountability is a danger not just to the people who are arrested, but to the notion of democracy.

The clearest example of how immigrant disempowerment is leveraged against all voters is the current political argument surrounding alleged voter fraud. Trump brazenly lied about his popular vote loss in 2016, claiming that Hillary Clinton's margin was the result of undocumented immigrants voting in large numbers. This specter of immigrants voting illegally is used to justify voter ID laws, which disproportionately disenfranchise minorities and the poor. Taking the vote from some people thus becomes a justification for taking it from others. The disenfranchisement of immigrants justifies a system in which voting is seen as a restricted right.

On a national level, immigrant enfranchisement is not on the table now, nor is it likely to be for some time. After decades of post 9/11 race-baiting and nativism, too many Americans see immigrants as enemies rather than neighbors. Even Democratic politicians like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fearing for their own electoral coalitions, have taken stands against immigrants voting in local elections. For that matter, anti-immigrant sentiment is such that undocumented immigrants, and even documented immigrants, would today justifiably fear showing up at polling places.

But it's still important to see immigrant voting as a goal, even if it's a distant one. Otherwise, people like Douthat, Haidt and Trump will continue to blame immigrants for the erosion of American democracy.

The truth of course is that immigrants have been coming to the United States as long as there has been a United States. They don't threaten democracy unless we choose to exclude them from democracy. It's true that hatred and disenfranchisement breed authoritarianism. But it isn't immigrants’ fault that the United States is drifting towards fascism. It's our fault for not empowering them to vote out the politicians who hate them.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."