There's a monster running amok right now that is swallowing up the L.A. mayor's race. It has nothing to do with LAPD tactics or staffing, the scarcity of adequate funds to pay for hard-pressed services or whether L.A. can avoid a riot in 1993.
It's a question that has no direct bearing on next year's election. Simply put, it's this: Should non-citizen residents, and presumably illegal immigrants, be allowed to vote in certain elections in the United States?
While it seems popular to blame a lot of our current fiscal and social woes on immigrants, let's not draw them into a debate without real purpose. There are plenty of pertinent issues to discuss without getting sidetracked on stuff that doesn't help us set priorities for Los Angeles' future.
Nevertheless, for what it's worth, I think it's a stupid idea to give non-citizens a right to vote.
I had finally heard enough about this so-called issue while watching KCET-TV Channel 28 the other evening for the latest installment of the "Tom and Julian Show." On "Life & Times," mayoral hopefuls Tom Houston and Julian Nava reiterated their positions on this question--Nava in favor and Houston against.
I had seen and heard this act several times before. And each time, I wondered what the point to Tom and Julian's act was. I guess the reporters at first thought they were adding to the public discussion by asking more questions about the proposal, for which Nava was soundly booed when he first raised it several weeks ago.
But the more I heard of Tom and Julian's restated positions, the more patience I lost with this discussion. Was the city of L.A. throwing out federal citizenship and voting laws and instituting its own, I wondered. Was this the defining issue for this campaign and not the questions of transportation, searing video images of law enforcement and clean air?
I can understand why some civil libertarians and Latinos rallied to the idea of allowing non-citizens the right to vote in city or school elections. Latinos, for example, make up nearly 70% of the enrollment of more than 650,000 pupils in Los Angeles city schools. They constitute 40% of the city's 3.2-million population. Yet many of them are not citizens.
This prompted L.A. school board member Leticia Quezada last year to propose extending the vote to those residents in school elections. There was no support for Quezada's proposal and some say it may have sealed her loss in a Democratic primary last June to succeed Rep. Edward Roybal in Congress. And Nava should know that the public knows the difference between a good idea and a bad one.
U.S. citizenship, with all of its rights, privileges and responsibilities, is something to be cherished, something to be preserved and even something to cry over. I remember Chuy, a Chicano in my artillery unit in Vietnam who broke down in tears one night while describing the moment his mother, who was once an illegal immigrant, became a U.S. citizen.
"She could barely speak English but she took the (citizenship) oath," recalled Chuy, a quiet man from West Texas. "I cried, she cried. When she voted for the first time here, we all cried."
Voting is at the heart of citizenship. It's the one thing that Americans say they will fight to the death to defend. It may sound trite or corny, but I think it to be true.
Giving the vote to anyone else, someone who isn't a U.S. citizen, cheapens the privilege. If a person wants to vote, let him or her consider becoming a citizen. Once you extend the privilege of voting to non-citizens, what limits, if any, would you place on it? Only in city elections? School elections? For President of the United States?
Latino leaders interested in empowering the ever-growing numbers of immigrants in this country should consider more common-sense approaches, including this one: Start lobbying for another amnesty program so that more immigrants can qualify for legal residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
Few remember that it was Ronald Reagan, the archfoe of evil empires who in 1986 approved amnesty for 3.1 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. Under that law, about 700,000 people in Southern California, beginning in 1993, can apply for U.S. citizenship.
Who knows what Bill Clinton or a successor might say.
In the meantime, let's hope Tom and Julian and the other mayoral hopefuls will talk about the real pertinent issues facing Los Angeles. Let's not waste our time on non-issues.