New York City is presently engulfed in a rigorous legal debate, a narrative revolving around asylum seekers and non-citizen voting rights.
On Friday, June 23rd, an appeals court was convened to deliberate on Local Law 11, a controversial legal provision that empowers non-citizens possessing a permanent resident card or work authorization and having stayed in New York City for at least 30 days to participate in municipal elections.
Asylum seekers are eligible for work authorization once they file their asylum application.
A panel of four judges from the Appellate Division’s second department listened to arguments, paving the way for a ruling expected to be delivered in the fall.
The Game Changer: Local Law 11
This law, if upheld, could instigate a considerable shift in the political landscape of New York City, adding nearly a million immigrants to the voter base.
However, there’s an increasing number of migrants who find themselves in government-provided shelters, unable to work due to a lack of the necessary authorization.
To aid this population, Mayor Adams recently announced the Asylum Application Help Center. Its mission is to assist tens of thousands of asylum seekers in submitting their asylum applications, which is the first step toward obtaining work authorization.
However, this presents a unique situation: if these newly arrived migrants gain employment authorization and stay in the city for over a month, they will be eligible to vote under Local Law 11, regardless of their eventual asylum status.
Voices of the Legal Permanent Residents
During last Friday’s arguments, attorneys representing legal permanent residents who currently cannot vote highlighted the significance of this legal tussle. The attorneys argued that their clients, directly affected by decisions regarding school funding, housing, and economic crises, should have a say in who is elected to power.
These residents are voiceless in the electoral process that decides the officeholders of the City Council, Mayor, and the Comptroller’s office, all of whom directly affect their lives. They asserted that Local Law 11 was intended to provide these individuals with a voice and a vote.
Advocates Stand Firm for Non-Citizen Voting
During the appeals court hearing, advocates from both sides presented their arguments with fervor. Representatives from immigrant advocacy organizations like Latin Justice and the Our City, Our Vote Coalition emphasized the human impact of delayed implementation. They highlighted the low turnout at recent elections, arguing that years of delayed democratic engagement have deprived their community of the right to vote.
“Our City, Our Vote”
The “Our City, Our Vote” bill was initially passed by the City Council in December 2021, with strong support from Democrats and advocates who have long fought to extend voting rights to immigrants. This bill had set the stage for green-card holders and residents with work visas, accounting for about 10% of the city’s population, to vote in local elections. However, prominent Republican leaders and naturalized citizens who went through the citizenship process raised concerns about the law, fearing it would dilute the voting power of citizens and discourage legal permanent residents from pursuing citizenship.
Opposition to Local Law 11
The staunch opposition to the law was inevitable. Prominent figures like Nick Langworthy, former Chair of the New York State Republican Party, vehemently challenged the law, basing his arguments on the state constitution’s requirement of US citizenship for voting. He advocated that if city authorities are committed to non-citizen voting, they should lobby Albany for a constitutional amendment.
Several other Republican leaders, including Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella and New York City Council Member Joe Borelli, echoed Langworthy’s sentiments. They filed the lawsuit against the city, asserting that Local Law 11 would diminish citizens’ voting power and discourage many legal permanent residents from pursuing citizenship.
A diverse group of naturalized and native-born citizens joined the lawsuit opposing Local Law 11 stating the position that if you want to vote, you must become a citizen which includes going through the immigration process including background checks, the citizenship test, and paying the application fees. Allowing non-citizens to vote disenfranchises United States citizens and is against the New York State and U.S. Constitution.
With currently over 80,000 migrants and rising in New York City seeking asylum, who have not been vetted with background checks or their asylum requests adjudicated, New York City would be allowing foreign nationals to vote. The majority of asylum cases are often denied.
Constitutional Complications and Ambiguities
Staten Island judge Ralph Porzio sided with the naturalized and native-born U.S. citizens opposing Local Law 11 and prohibited the Board of Elections from allowing non-citizens to vote.
Porzio’s ruling created an impasse, and the New York City Law Department promptly appealed with the backing of Mayor Adams.
Advocates for the non-citizens argue that while the state constitution indeed states that “every citizen shall be entitled to vote,” it does not explicitly state that only citizens are entitled to vote. This legal loophole adds another layer of complexity to the debate, raising questions about the interpretation of the state constitution.
The Legal Ambiguity and its Potential Ramifications
An essential aspect of this situation is that the merit of many of these asylum seekers’ applications will be decided later by a judge. If, years later, a judge disapproves of a migrant’s application, this implies that they have participated in elections despite their non-asylum status, creating an unprecedented predicament.
As the city braces itself for the primary election on June 27th, this controversial law continues to draw battle lines, stirring up profound debates about the essence of democratic participation, the rights of migrants, and the future political landscape of New York City.
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