How thoroughly depressing to report that my town of Riverdale Park, Maryland seems about to join post-borders and post-citizenship America– that is to say, post-America America. Early next month, the town council is almost sure to approve legislation that will grant the vote in local elections to non-citizens both legally and illegally present in the United States. For good measure, the bill would lower the voting age for such elections to sixteen.
The above description should suffice to point to many of the proposal’s worst flaws. By extending the franchise to illegal immigrants, the town would create another reward for individuals who have broken U.S. law, and add insult to injury to all those outside the country’s borders who have been waiting in line and playing by the rules in order to enter. Even permitting legal non-citizens to vote on the local level would greatly empower many residents who, for various reasons, have chosen to avoid this kind of binding commitment to the American political community. In other words, both categories of canon-citizens would be able to weigh in on decisions with long-term implications for the town’s well-being without much skin in the game.
In addition, in the case of both legals and illegals, the vote would be rewarded based on residing in Riverdale Park for a grand total of 45 days. And despite the legislation’s creation of a “supplemental voter registry,” it looks like a great recipe for voter fraud given that applicants merely need to “submit a signed registration form with the town clerk in a form prescribed by the clerk.” The measure does specify that verification be provided that “the individual is eligible to vote in town elections” (by showing residency for 45 days). But how reassuring can this requirement be given that undocumented immigrants are – by definition – undocumented? Even more troubling: Applicants will be able to complete this registration process (including the supposed verification) on the very day elections are held.
As for lowering the voting age to sixteen, anyone who has ever parented an adolescent should understand why this idea should have been a non-starter.
I attended a town council meeting on March 26 to listen to and participate in debate over the bill. All manner of legitimate and specious arguments were made on behalf of legal and illegal non-citizen voting by the smallish number of residents present. Heading the first category was the compelling (though still controversial) claim that the non-citizen voting legislation would be completely acceptable on Constitutional grounds, since the Constitution says nothing explicit about the overall subject.
Moreover, although citizenship has more recently been established as a nearly absolute requirement for voting in federal elections, the National Council of State Legislatures holds that it’s the states, with important qualifications (such as Constitutional bars on various forms of arbitrary discrimination) that posses “the ultimate authority” over elections within their borders.
But the flurry of bogus arguments for permitting non-citizens to vote, and the conspicuous failure of most council members to challenge them, convinced me that this scheme is a done deal – unless it can be overturned by a referendum. For example, supporters claimed that enabling non-citizens of both types to vote was needed to establish Riverdale Park as a “welcoming community.” None responded to my objection that any resident is currently free to bring any concerns to the attention of any current town official, and that surely these officials would take them seriously regardless of that resident’s legal status.
I was also of course told that both legal and illegal residents were subject to taxation, and thus deserved representation (as 18th century patriot Patrick Henry famously insisted). But of course, legal non-citizens are already eligible for a wide variety of benefits at many government levels, and illegals are eligible for a narrower but hardly negligible range – in addition to benefits (like public school attendance and food stamps eligibility) they can access indirectly because their children are permitted to attend public schools and, if born in the United States and therefore citizens. And let’s not forget – both categories of non-citizens also enjoy the less tangible but no less significant benefits of living in a freedom-loving democracy that, however flawed, ensures that power is exercised through the rule of law, not arbitrarily. Indeed, isn’t that largely why they’re here in the first place?
But most disturbing were two other categories of arguments – the first because it reflected absolutely no interest in political values central to the country’s historic success, the second because it suggested unmistakable contempt for these values.
This indifference – or what certainly sounded like it – came from the measure’s sponsor, Council Member Marsha Dixon, and was expressed after I described the legislation as a perfect example of poor governance. As I see it, a politician takes it on him or herself to solve a problem that’s been proactively identified by no one else in the town (even the non-citizens), according to all available evidence, and thus to fix a local political culture that has showed no signs of being broken.
Dixon’s response? (This is a paraphrase, since the official minutes of the meeting haven’t yet been posted.) She thought the town’s population had “evolved” (that I remember for sure), and therefore its voting rules needed to evolve accordingly.
But there’s evolution and there’s evolution. And Dixon’s version simply ignored one of the most important lessons taught by the Founding Fathers: The only hope for the long-term survival and health of an American democracy worth preserving is creating and nurturing a community of shared democratic values. And achieving this goal inevitably requires a process of assimilating immigrants that is inescapably protracted if it to be taken seriously.
Hence the fears expressed by Thomas Jefferson in 1782 about the encouragement of mass immigration:
“It is for the happiness of those united in society to harmonize as much as possible in matters which they must of necessity transact together. Civil government being the sole object of forming societies, its administration must be conducted by common consent. Every species of government has its specific principles. Ours perhaps are more peculiar than those of any other in the universe. It is a composition of the freest principles of the English constitution, with others derived from natural right and natural reason. To these nothing can be more opposed than the maxims of absolute monarchies. Yet, from such, we are to expect the greatest number of emigrants. They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their numbers, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass.”
George Washington shared many of these concerns, and believed that only exposure to American ways – a process that he suggested could take generations – could mitigate them:
“My opinion, with respect to emigration, is, that except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men or professions, there is no need of encouragement, while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for, by so doing, they retain the Language, habits and principles (good or bad) which they bring with them—Whereas by an intermixture with our people, they, or their descendants, get assimilated to our customs, measures and laws:—in a word, soon become one people.”
Alexander Hamilton has been portrayed in the recent blockbuster musical as a champion of Open Borders and immigrants’ rights, agreed with Jefferson and Washington, and argued strongly in 1802 against a (Jefferson) proposal to completely eliminate a fourteen-year requirement for naturalization (stemming from widespread alarm about excessive foreign influence in American affairs at a time when the new nation was threatened by both British and French ambitions). Alluding to those resulting insecurities and tensions, Hamilton allowed that
“The present law was merely a temporary measure adopted under peculiar circumstances and perhaps demands revision. But there is a wide difference between closing the door altogether and throwing it entirely open; between a postponement of fourteen years and an immediate admission to all the rights of citizenship. Some reasonable term ought to be allowed to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of at least a probability of their feeling a real interest in our affairs. A residence of at least five years ought to be required.”
Riverdale Park Council Member Dixon’s threadbare 45-day residency requirement demonstrates just how unconcerned about this history, and these essential considerations, so many of our politicians have become – as well as how thoughtless.
Nevertheless, her arguments at least didn’t explicitly scorn the view that the Founders’ deserve any hearing. That belief was expressed by several town residents who spoke in favor of expanding the franchise. Responding to my summary of this history, one youngish woman dismissed the Founders as figures who favored denying women the vote and treating enslaved African-Americans as three-fifths of a person (as stated in the Constitution’s Article I, Section 2) for the purposes of allotting the number of Congress members for each state. (Hamilton, of course, was “accused” by many contemporaries of having a mixed race background). A similarly youngish man smirked that, he “had no idea what was in the minds of the Founding Fathers,” and suggested he didn’t especially care.
This is of course a classic instance of “presentism” – the mistake of judging historical figures entirely by contemporary standards. Worse, such sneering overlooks how leaders whose views on race and gender would of course (rightly) be regarded today as racist and sexist nonetheless recognized that times could change momentously for the new nation – and included in their new nation’s organizing framework procedures for approving comparably momentous changes.
Moreover, similar views have been expressed by someone who wasn’t a slaveholder or sexist. In fact, he’s a deserved icon of American progressivism – early twentieth century Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. In a 1915 speech with a title – “True Americanism” – whose use by the left half of the political spectrum these days would be almost inconceivable, Brandeis spoke at length on the importance of assimilation.
He was no simple melting pot advocate. In fact, Brandeis explicitly stated that:
“America has believed that we must not only give to the immigrant the best that we have, but must preserve for America the good that is in the immigrant and develop in him the best of which he is capable. America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. It acted on this belief; it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.”
But Brandeis (whose parents were foreign born) also insisted that immigrants undergo Americanization, and that at its core, this concept entailed ensuring that a newcomer’s “interests and affections have become deeply rooted here. And we properly demand of the immigrant even more than this. He must be brought into complete harmony with our ideals and aspirations and cooperate with us for their attainment. Only when this has been done, will he possess the national consciousness of an American.”
Brandeis was emphatically optimistic that this task could be accomplished – not least because he credited many immigrants are “already truly American in this most important sense; who has long shared our ideals and who, oppressed and persecuted abroad, has yearned for our land of liberty and for the opportunity of abiding in the realization of its aims.”
But Brandeis also understood that the “E pluribus” (out of many) part of America’s national motto needed to become some meaningful form of “unum” (one) If only Riverdale Park – and all the other jurisdictions in Maryland and elsewhere in the United States that have either jumped on this bandwagon or are actively mulling this step – weren’t acting so determined to evolve beyond that vital ideal, too.