POLITICS Do Aliens Have Rights?

14-1 is just the start, say proponents of voting rights for resident aliens.


our backs and get on with the business of the city.

This is the litany Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss and other city leaders chant to promote the 14-1 plan of city government. Vote on December 8 for fourteen district council members and a city-wide mayor, their reasoning goes, and the lawsuit that forced a redesign of Dallas government will self-destruct. No more will the federal courts meddle in our civics.

When Strauss waxes ever so sincere, you almost believe her. But the fact is that the mayor’s picture of 14-1 as a public panacea is chock-full of the same wishful thinking that marked her support of that other council redesign, 10-4-1, barely a year ago. Because another federal lawsuit-likely to be even more explosive in its impact on Dallas-is waiting in the wings.

YOU MIGHT CALL IRMA MAY A MODEL CITIZEN. SHE WORKS THE SNOW cone booth when her daughter’s school band needs extra cash. She helps out in PTA activities with both of her children. She is active in her church. With her husband, Gilbert, she owns six houses in the city and pays all the myriad local taxes.

Because she teaches American history, government, and citizenship in a Mountain View Community College program for immigrants, Irma May is well attuned to the responsibilities and problems of the community. She frets about crime and speaks out on educational and city government issues. One of these days, she would like to represent her Oak Cliff district on either the Dallas Independent School District Board or the Dallas City Council.

“I think I could make a contribution in local government,” May explains. “I’m not a politician, but I pay close attention to what is going on in Dallas. It is my city, and I want to help make it a better place for my family to live. I think I could get elected if I could run.”

But Irma May cannot run for office in Dallas. She cannot even vote for the public officials who decide how her tax money will be spent or what her children will learn in school. May satisfies our everyday definition of a model citizen, but she is not a citizen of the United States. Born in Mexico, she is an alien, an outsider, a spectator on the sidelines of her community.

Because May is, in most ways, a model citizen, Hispanic groups currently are trying to recruit her as the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that could take Dallas into the 21st century. She or someone very much like her may well become the Jane Roe or Rosa Parks of voting rights for aliens.

“This is going to be the civil rights issue of the Nineties,” says Ray Hutchison, the former state legislator and the former Republican gubernatorial candidate who headed the Dallas Citizens Charter Review Committee in 1989. “We are raising immigration quotas and granting amnesty to what we used to call illegal aliens. All these people were entitled to schooling, and they pay taxes. The argument is that if they pay taxes, they ought to have a say in how their tax money is spent.”

So while “Get the federal courts off our backs” may be the battle cry of Mayor Strauss and a brigade of civic leaders trying to sell 14-1, a tougher, more explosive federal suit is on the horizon. Many of the same organizations that sued to force the proposed new plan (fourteen council members elected from districts with only the mayor at large) that goes to voters December 8 are hoping to plant the courts squarely in the city’s back for several years to come.

In fact, the 14-1 plan almost demands action on the voting rights issue. To draw at least one district in which Hispanic candidates enjoy a reasonable chance of election-one of the goals mandated by U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer-the city must bring resident aliens into the electoral process.

Why? Because city districts are based on census counts. The census identifies residents on the basis of ethnic origin, but it makes no distinction between citizens and aliens. Demographers believe that, in many predominantly Hispanic census tracts, non-citizens make up as much as half of the population. So stringing census tracts together to form a predominantly Hispanic district will have little effect on council elections.

“We discussed that problem during the Charter Review Committee sessions,” says Hutchison. “I think there was a strong feeling that we couldn’t draw a Hispanic district unless we changed voting requirements. But the committee didn’t take any action on the issue because granting voting rights to aliens would require a change in the state constitution… [that] will have to come from the federal courts.”

Mexican-American activist Joe May, Ir-ma’s brother-in-law, argues that history is on the side of alien voting rights. “This is taxation without representation. That’s why they had the Boston Tea Party we all learned about in school. A lot of Mexicans in Dallas would like to be U.S. citizens, but they can’t even apply until they have lived here five years. It’ll be five years before the amnesty people can apply, but the city won’t wait five years for them to start paying taxes.”

On the face of it, voting rights for non-citizens seems a startling, even radical, idea. At about the same point in our schooling at which we studied the Boston Tea Party, those of us who were born and grew up in this country learned that voting is a right and responsibility of citizenship. With hardly a second thought, we conclude that only U.S. citizenship bestows the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the vote.

“It’s been a matter of international practice throughout my lifetime that, unless you are a citizen of a country, you do not participate in that country’s political process,” says Hutchison. “It will be a matter of great resistance to change that practice.”

Already, though, the resistance Hutchison predicts has been eroded in some parts of the country. Both New York City and Chicago grant the right to vote in school board elections to anyone with children in public schools, regardless of citizenship.

Dallas attorney and Hispanic activist Domingo Garcia contends that federal court action in Dallas may not be necessary. A member of the Democratic National Committee, Garcia already has asked that group to include voting rights for resident aliens (in local elections) as part of its national campaign platform in 1992. He also has met with state legislators, urging them to enact a local initiative that would allow Dallas voters to decide the issue for themselves.

But Joe May and other Hispanic activistsagree with Hutchison that only the federalcourts can topple the Texas Constitutionlanguage confining voting rights to U.S.citizens. “People in Dallas think minoritiesare going to settle down and be quiet whenthis redistricting controversy is over,” saysMay. “They’re going to be surprised whenthey wake up one morning and find out weare taking the city and the state to court overvoting rights.”


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