Non-Citizen Voting Cheapens U.S. Citizenship | Opinion

New York City just passed a law that will let more than 800,000 non-citizens vote in municipal elections. The city council approved the measure last year, and the city's new mayor, Eric Adams, signed it into law on Sunday, January 9.

New York City's new voter rolls will include legal residents of the city as well as many who only have work authorizations in the U.S. and "Dreamers"—people brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. Former city council member Ydanis Rodriguez, a leading sponsor of the legislation, claimed that letting non-citizens vote is a necessary step to "include the voices of immigrants" and "build a stronger democracy." But the truth is that allowing non-citizens to vote cheapens U.S. citizenship and undermines the efforts legal immigrants, such as myself, have taken to become naturalized U.S. citizens.

Our Founding Fathers regarded the right to vote as a sacred responsibility that only a citizen should have. Alexander Hamilton pointed out that giving the rights of citizens too easily to immigrants not only resulted in election fraud but also threatened the "safety of a republic" because those who did not embrace American principles or had no intention of staying would vote accordingly.

To protect the future of the republic, our Founders decided that only U.S. citizens should be able to vote in U.S. elections. They instituted a naturalization process—through the Uniform Rule of Naturalization of 1790—to ensure that U.S. citizenship was not granted easily but had to be earned.

Since 1790, our nation's immigration laws have changed many times, but the essential components of the naturalization process remain the same. Today, a legal resident of the United States who is not an active service member (military personnel have a different set of rules) and is 18 or older is eligible to apply for citizenship. He or she must meet a set of naturalization criteria, including: being a legal resident for five years, demonstrating knowledge of English and civics and showing attachment to the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. naturalization ceremony
CAMP SPRINGS, MARYLAND - MAY 27: New U.S. citizens take their Oath of Allegiance during a Naturalization Ceremony at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Headquarters on May 27, 2021 in Camp Springs, Maryland. This special Naturalization Ceremony honored Asian American Pacific Islanders and was the first ceremony to be held at the new USCIS headquarters. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Since naturalization is—by design—not an easy process, not all eligible legal immigrants apply for U.S. citizenship. In the 1990s, less than 40 percent of eligible legal immigrants applied for and obtained citizenship. In recent years, the rate has climbed to 67 percent. Still, about one-third of eligible legal immigrants chose not to participate in the naturalization process. Some find the language or civic knowledge requirements intimidating, and others are turned off by either the cost or the time commitment of the process. Many feel legal residency is more than sufficient to meet their needs of living and working in the United States, and the right to vote is not a top priority for them.

But those of us who wanted to participate in the democratic process fully and get our voice heard didn't shy away from the naturalization process, no matter how challenging it has been to each of us personally. Becoming a full-fledged U.S. citizen and having the right to vote are so important that millions of us have done whatever it takes for our naturalization, including committing time and financial resources, learning civics and improving our English.

This January marks my 26th year in the United States. I spent 17 of those years following a legal path to become a U.S. citizen. My journey was long, expensive and often frustrating as I dealt with some of the worst bureaucracy and most insanely complex laws I could imagine. My experience was hardly an outlier among naturalized citizens. Yet the day I took the sacred oath and became a naturalized U.S. citizen has remained one of the happiest days in my life. Since then, I've voted in every election and treated every vote I cast as both a privilege and a responsibility.

By granting non-citizens the right to vote in local elections, New York City's new law cheapens U.S. citizenship. It undermines the efforts and sacrifices naturalized citizens, including myself, have made. If anyone can vote, what's the value of U.S. citizenship? Why should immigrants commit time and resources to go through the naturalization process? What will this republic's future be if fewer voters demonstrate civic knowledge and attachment to the U.S. Constitution?

Those who advocated for this new law were driven by the desire to obtain greater political power. They don't speak for us immigrants. All of us, non-citizens and citizens together, should reject this new law because it does a disservice to us, the future of the city and the nation.

Helen Raleigh, CFA, is an American entrepreneur, writer and speaker. Helen is the author of Backlash: How China's Aggression Has Backfired and Confucius Never Said. Follow her on Twitter: @HRaleighspeaks and visit her website: www.helenraleighspeaks.com.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.