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S.F. Weighs Granting Noncitizens Vote in Board Elections

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Officials of the San Francisco Unified School District are weighing whether to give noncitizens there the right to vote in school board elections, a spokeswoman for the district said last week.

Marcia L. Hunt, a spokeswoman and lobbyist for the district, said Superintendent Waldemar Rojas and several members of the San Francisco school board are interested in giving noncitizen parents that right.

The school officials have been holding discussions with San Francisco county officials and are considering action at the state level to try to bring about the required changes in law, Ms. Hunt said.

In Texas, meanwhile, the Southwest Voter Registration Project, the Mexican-American Democrats, the Dallas City Council, and various Hispanic and black politicians are backing a measure, expected to be introduced this legislative session, to give resident aliens the right to vote in local school board and municipal elections throughout the state , according to Domingo Garcia, a member of the Dallas City Council.

Granting suffrage in school elections "is a small but very key step in encouraging noncitizen parents to be more involved and to be taken seriously in the education of their children,'' said Henry Der, the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a civil-rights organization based in San Francisco.

A Volatile Issue

But taking such a step may prove difficult, however, for the issue of noncitizen voting appears to remain a political tinderbox.

Even as members of the San Francisco school board last week were discussing noncitizen suffrage, California legislators were considering a bill to prohibit use of state funds for the education of undocumented aliens.

So far, New York City and Chicago are the only major cities to have given noncitizens the right to vote for school officials, and both did so only in the context of much broader school-reform efforts.

"If you divorce citizenship and voting, you corrupt the very concept of citizenship and the social contract'' and "give control of the school to people who show up illegally,'' asserted Dan A. Stein, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of several groups that oppose efforts to enfranchise noncitizens.

"Voting ought to be an incentive for naturalization,'' Mr. Stein said.

Yet noncitizen voting was common in the United States, especially in school board elections, until World War I, when a wave of nativism prompted state after state to repeal the right from its constitution, according Jamin B. Raskin, an assistant professor of law at American University.

Leticia Quezada, a member of the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, introduced a resolution in February 1992 to enfranchise noncitizen parents there.

Ms. Quezada tabled her motion, however, after it met resistance from various groups and the leaders of the district's black education commission complained that they had not been consulted in the proposal's development.

Hispanic Leaders Divided

Jose L. De Paz, the executive director of the California Immigrant Workers Association, said his organization continues to try to build grassroots support among Los Angeles citizens for Ms. Quezada's proposal.

But building enough political support to gain voting rights for noncitizens, he conceded, may take "months, if not years.''

No California legislator has yet proposed a measure to enfranchise noncitizens, and "even the Latino legislators are a little leery right now'' of raising the issue, given the state's racial tensions, which are being exacerbated by the state's continuing economic slump and resulting high unemployment, said Jimmy L. Franco, the state chairman for civil rights of the California League of United Latin American Citizens.

Marc Granowitter, a research associate for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which has declined to take an official stand on noncitizen voting, last week said that Hispanic leaders appear divided on the issue.

"There are folks who believe it would be counterproductive,'' Mr. Granowitter said. "There are folks who believe it would trigger a backlash. Even if it does not trigger a backlash, there are people who think it takes away from citizenship promotion, which secures the right to vote in all elections, not just local and school board elections.''

"It is a very volatile issue, there is no question about it,'' said Julio Barreto Jr., an official of the the National League of Cities who is that group's liaison to Hispanic Elected Local Officials, a national-league constituency group.

Mr. Barreto said the Hispanic officials' group endorses giving the right to vote in local school board elections to documented noncitizens who are legally in the United States, but not to undocumented, illegal aliens.

Reluctant Voters

Mr. Der of Chinese for Affirmative Action estimated that enfranchising noncitizen parents in San Francisco would add about 30,000 individuals to the current Chinese-American voting population of about 59,000.

But giving noncitizens the right to vote in local school board elections appears to be no guarantee that they will show up at the polls.

In New York City, which has allowed noncitizen parents to vote in its 32 local school board elections since 1970, noncitizens have yet to register in large numbers, said Philip Kaplan, the executive director of the New York City School Boards Association.

Mr. Kaplan said language barriers prevent many noncitizens from learning of their right to vote in the board elections.

Among the parents who are aware of their voting right, Mr. Kaplan said, many are hesitant to sign such documents as the city's parent-voter registration form.

"They, by their own desire, exclude themselves from the process,'' he said.

Juan S. Cruz, the vice president of the appointed Chicago board of education, said the district plans to conduct a study of the impact of the state legislature's decision to allow noncitizens to vote in elections for the city's 550 local school councils.

Mr. Cruz said he expected to see Hispanic parent involvement in the school-council elections to increase by 10 percent to 15 percent, but instead watched it rise by only about 3 percent, despite the fact that the change in state law was heavily publicized on radio and television.

"There are still people who fear the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] and all of those folks will come out and investigate them,'' Mr. Cruz said.

Magdalena C. Lewis, who has been working to increase Hispanic parent involvement in schools as the director of the Parents in the School program of the National Committee for Citizens in Education, said immigrant parents often simply are unaccustomed to the idea of having any role in the governance of schools.

"The school systems in their countries, in general, are centralized, and the educators are the ones who are in charge,'' Ms. Lewis said. "The parents do not have a say in it.''

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