City Council considering local voting rights for immigrants with ‘legal status’

Local News

Immigrants who are in Boston legally but have not yet gained citizenship should be able to have a say in municipal elections, some councilors said.

Boston City Hall. Keith Bedford/Boston Globe

The Boston City Council is weighing a measure that would allow immigrants with “legal status” to vote in municipal elections, even if they are not American citizens. 

Councilor Kendra Lara proposed a home rule petition during Wednesday’s meeting that would enact the change. Lara received words of support from multiple colleagues, and a hearing on the matter will be scheduled soon so that experts can weigh in. 

“Though immigrants, particularly those with legal status, pay taxes and contribute to Boston’s economy, they are not able to participate in the electoral process, in what I believe is a violation of one of our foundational American principles,” Lara said. “By moving this home rule petition forward, Boston can begin the process of making good on our promise to build a city that is for everyone.”

Census data shows that, as of 2021, 28.1% of the city’s residents were born outside the U.S. Foreign-born residents with legal standing pay an average of $2.3 billion in annual taxes and hold about $6 billion in “collective spending power,” according to Lara’s petition.

Lara argued that disenfranchising taxpayers from the electoral process is not in line with American values. As the process of gaining full citizenship is often lengthy and expensive, immigrants new to Boston are stuck without the ability to vote for the officials in charge of making decisions that affect their day-to-day lives, she said. 

In introducing the measure, Lara also highlighted other ways that Boston should grow its electorate, such as giving voting rights to incarcerated people and implementing same-day voting registration. 

Lara said she spoke with elected officials from communities across Massachusetts, advocates, lawyers, and other experts in crafting the petition. It was referred to the Committee on Government Operations.

Councilor Michael Flaherty said that councilors had to be mindful of several “legal concerns” regarding a measure like this. Flaherty, who has served on City Council for nearly 20 years, said that the idea has been debated before and that he oversaw multiple hearings on the topic as the former Chair of the Committee on Government Operations. 

One concern expressed by experts in the past is that non-citizens could mistakenly register to vote in federal or state elections, potentially barring them from ever gaining citizenship, Flaherty said. Employers or family members could use this information in a predatory manner, holding it over others for any number of reasons, he added. 

Flaherty referenced a judge’s ruling last summer that a similar measure in New York City conflicted with constitutional guidelines and state law. New York City Council had previously approved legislation giving noncitizens the right to vote in municipal elections. 

Flaherty did not oppose the measure, but cautioned other councilors of barriers that could be in their way. 

“We need to find a way through this, we need to continue to be inviting and welcoming to new Bostonians, we need to encourage all that community involvement and participation,” Flaherty said. “There are some inherent dangers that were outlined in a number of hearings through prior council sessions.”

Lara said that there are many other communities who have found ways to implement measures like this while still protecting noncitizens. She pointed out that New York City Council passed an ordinance, rather than filing a home rule petition, which opened it up to “legal scrutiny.”

Councilor Liz Breadon spoke in favor of the change, drawing on her experience as an immigrant who came to Boston from Northern Ireland in 1995. It took her 12 years to gain citizenship, even though she had privileges that many newly-arrived immigrants do not, Breadon said. 

“I was hired to work in Boston University Hospital, Boston Medical Center. I speak English. I had huge advantages over so many other immigrants,” she said. “We shouldn’t be making it more difficult to participate. We should be smoothing the way and making it easier for people to participate and be fully engaged in our civic life.”