Should tax-paying undocumented residents get a say in who represents them on the city council dais?
And this week that debate re-emerged front and center in Santa Ana – the heart of Orange County – against the backdrop of a police union-backed recall election in the city.
A majority of Santa Ana City Council members Tuesday supported putting a measure on the November 2024 ballot asking voters if the city should research and implement noncitizen voting in Santa Ana city council races.
The proposed ballot measure is expected to come back before the council and if approved by voters, Santa Ana may become the first city in Southern California to allow noncitizen voting.
“I’m interested in exploring what we at the City of Santa Ana can do to expand and strengthen democracy at the local level. Right now a huge portion of our residents are subject to the policies we at this dais decide on but can’t make their voices heard in local elections,” said Councilman Ben Vazquez, who brought forth the proposal with Councilman Johnathan Hernandez, at Tuesday’s meeting.
“That’s undemocratic and unfair.”
Tuesday’s council debate came after about two hours of public comments with a majority of speakers, including undocumented residents, voicing their support for allowing noncitizens to cast ballots in local elections.
It also came after Santa Ana Families For Fair Elections – a coalition of community groups like the Harbor Institute, VietRise, the OC Justice Fund and more, held a news conference before the council meeting in support of the proposal.
But not everyone on the city council was receptive to the idea and some residents also opposed the idea.
Critics on the dais like Mayor Valerie Amezcua say the rush to get non citizen voting on the November 2024 ballot is a political stunt ahead of a police-union backed recall of City Councilwoman Jessie Lopez this year.
They also say it could prevent undocumented residents from getting citizenship.
“We shouldn’t be playing with people’s lives,” Amezcua said. “My grandmother worked three jobs – three jobs – to pay for everything she had to pay for to get her citizenship.”
She pointed to language used by the San Francisco Department of Elections that says information provided to their department can be provided to the Immigrant and Custom Enforcement Agency.
“We’re playing politics, because there’s a recall happening and so they want to make sure that things are in before,” Amezcua said.
Proponents say it’s about expanding democracy and giving a large group of residents a say in picking leaders that make policies that affect their daily lives.
“Historically, the people that we’re talking about have been marginalized, disenfranchised and kept out of the conversation,” Hernandez said.
City Councilman Phil Bacerra also said the effort was a political stunt that could harm people trying to become U.S. citizens.
“This is all a political exercise. This is not for the benefit of the people of the city. This is pure politics. It’s disgusting what people are willing to do to put long term harm on you, just for short term political gain,” he said.
Vazquez said it is not a political effort and argued that a third of the city’s voting age population are noncitizens – some of whom are being taxed without representation.
In Santa Ana, roughly 68,685 people are not U.S. citizens out of a population of around 308,200 residents, according to American Community Survey estimates from 2022.
Amezcua said such a law would likely land the city in a lawsuit
Last month, a court of appeals upheld San Francisco’s noncitizen voting program that allows undocumented residents to vote in school board elections.
“The recent court appeal decision on San Francisco’s case affirms that expanding the franchise to non citizen residents in local elections is legally permissible and that we do have the authority to explore this option,” Vazquez said.
City Attorney Sonia Carvalho said it’s not so cut and dry.
“I cannot sit here and tell you unequivocally tonight that what you propose, even if your voters approve it, can be done,” she said.
Carvalho said staff would need time to figure out how noncitizen voting would work in Santa Ana and clear direction from the city council.
The proposal in Santa Ana also comes as officials in Huntington Beach are moving in an opposite direction and exploring a potential ballot measure that would require residents to show government issued IDs to vote.
City Councilwoman Thai Viet Phan said she came to the U.S. as a refugee before getting citizenship at the age of 16 and went on to become the first Vietnamese American elected to the Santa Ana City Council, pointing to a lawsuit that forced the city to hold district elections.
“It wasn’t until I got my citizenship that I realized how important it was, how disenfranchised we were,” she said. “The Vietnamese American community, through a lawsuit with the California Voting Rights Act, fought for representation, because for 47 years plus that we’ve been here, we had never elected someone to represent us.”
“I support bringing this item back.”
Councilman David Penaloza said he did not support the proposal at the moment because there were too many unknowns.
“One of the biggest unknowns that comes with allowing non citizens to vote is the potential harm this can do to one’s immigration status or case if one chooses to indeed vote in a US election. Due to the fact that under federal law, only US citizens currently have the right to vote,” he said.
When the idea first came up last year in Santa Ana, Penaloza said it was a valid discussion to have but was not in support of putting the question to voters in a midterm election because of low turnout.
Officials took up a debate in July 2022 on joining other cities across the country in allowing undocumented residents to vote with Councilmembers Jonathan Hernandez, Phan and Lopez supporting the idea then.
Ross Romero, who identified himself as a Chicano activist, said the fact that noncitizens can’t vote is a “miscarriage of justice” and the idea to change that isn’t far-fetched.
“It’s not unAmerican. It’s not unconstitutional. It’s even bigger than all of that,” he said during public comment Tuesday.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Since you’ve made it this far,
You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.