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07/18/2018 05:59 pm ET

San Francisco Now Allows Noncitizens To Vote In School Board Elections

Immigrant parents "now have a direct voice to influence decisions that impact their children’s needs," an advocate said.
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San Francisco will become the first city in California to allow noncitizens to vote for certain positions in an upcoming election. 

On Monday, the city’s Department of Elections began issuing registration forms for the vote on Nov. 6 that allow noncitizen and undocumented parents, guardians and caregivers of students in the San Francisco Unified School District to vote in school board elections.

About one-third of the students in the district come from immigrant households, so the measure will give many parents a rightful voice, Hong Mei Pang, director of advocacy at the San Francisco-based nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action, told HuffPost in an email. Pang’s organization is involved in the Immigrant Parent Voting Collaborative, which partnered with the city elections department to spread awareness on the measure. 

“These newly enfranchised voters would now have a direct voice to influence decisions that impact their children’s needs that are often underrepresented, ranging from issues like language access to health and wellness,” Pang told HuffPost. 

Voters in San Francisco initially passed the measure, Proposition N, in 2016, with 54 percent of the vote. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously adopted the ordinance in May. 

“Voting is paramount to having a voice,” Stevon Cook, vice-president of the SFUSD Board of Education, told reporters. “Seeing our families feel like they have to go into hiding, like they can’t have their concerns heard because of the attacks from the White House, is something we want to stand firmly against. This is part of an overall strategy that assures that families in our city, whether they’re citizens or not, they have a voice in the direction and future of our schools.” 

This is part of an overall strategy that assures that families in our city, whether they’re citizens or not, they have a voice in the direction and future of our schools. Stevon Cook, vice-president of the SFUSD Board of Education

The San Francisco Unified School District is home to a significant population of immigrants and minorities. Asian-Americans are the largest racial group in the district, making up more than one-third of the student population. Latino students make up the next-largest, with 27 percent. A sizable portion of students ― 24 percent ― are also English language learners. 

Community organizations including Chinese for Affirmative Action, the Central American Resource Center and others have been working to “ensure monolingual, limited-English proficient, and vulnerable immigrants can have linguistically and culturally adaptable access to the full picture,” Pang said. 

Prop N was met with resistance, and it took three attempts to pass the proposition. Some critics of the legislation felt the right to vote should be reserved for citizens.

But Pang argues that historically, communities of color have been disproportionately barred from voting or targeted by voter suppression, and civic engagement will only allow the district to progress. 

“With this initiative, we are democratizing citizenship that lays on the continuum of progress,” she said. “Non-citizens not only contribute to the society through social and political engagement and involvement through their communities, but also are economic stakeholders through their tax dollars that directly fuel institutions like public education.”

Though California is considered a “sanctuary state,” voting doesn’t come risk-free for some undocumented immigrants. The Department of Elections warned that any information it’s provided could be obtained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Hong advises families to assess the risks and their own immigration status prior to participating in the vote “during these times of escalated federal attacks.”

The option to vote, however, is still important against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration and its zero tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants. Though immigrant communities are already on edge, Pang said community organizations have been attempting to strengthen safety nets for immigrant families.

“The current Administration’s policies have already created a chilling effect on immigrant access to public services,” Pang said. “Given this political reality, community-based organizations have been working to strengthen the protections that exist for immigrant communities through the local ordinance that provides guidance to the Department of Elections based on language access, and immigrant rights.” 

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