As Arizona tries to make illegal immigrants a little more uncomfortable, residents in Portland, Maine are trying to make legal immigrants more comfortable.
“Legal immigrants are an important part of our community,” says Will Everitt as he walks down Congress Street, just a block from City Hall. “They contribute a lot.”
Everitt is from the Maine League of Young Voters, a group that’s sponsoring a ballot initiative to give non-citizen legal immigrants the right to vote in Portland City elections. . “They’re sending their kids to our schools,” he says. “And they should be able to have a right to vote for say the school committee.”
Portland is a city of 65,000 and currently has about 10,000 legal non-citizen immigrants, mostly from African nations like Somalia. .
One of the petition-signers is Alfred Jacob, who came to Maine from the Sudan in the mid-90’s. For eight and a half years he worked jobs and paid taxes but had no say in how Portland city government spent his tax money. “I had no say whatsoever,” he said earlier this week as he walked past the sites of some of his former jobs including a restaurant and a museum. “I was not part of the process at all.”
Everitt calls that a blatant case of taxation without representation and he says it’s clearly not fair. “It’s not fair because these people are here legally,” he says. “They’re living in our community…and they should have a say in how their tax dollars are being spent.” . He says the whole point of the initiative is to make Portland more democratic.
Anti-immigration activists contend it will make it less so. . “It devalues democracy,” says Bob Dane. “And in a way, it’s watering down the very thing immigrants want the most, and that is the gift of American citizenship. ”
Dane is from the Federation for Immigration Reform, which wants to limit, not expand immigrant rights.
“Handing out instantaneous voting rights,” says Dane, “to people who still have not taken the requisite citizenship exam, is really just demeaning citizenship and it’s setting us back.”
Everitt disagrees. “I think this is all about democracy, “ he says. “This is about diversity and I think diversity equals democracy.”
Everitt is also proud Portland may buck the anti-immigration trend this year, “I think it’s a chance for Maine to be a counter-point to what’s going on in Arizona.”