We live in strange times. On the one hand, the United States is a more diverse society than at any other point in its history. On the other, we’re witnessing a presidential campaign where Donald Trump has captured the Republican nomination in part by whipping up hysteria against immigrants. It’s an old game in American politics—with roots stretching back to the Know Nothing movement (originally, and ironically, called the Native American Party) in the mid-1850s and even further to the founding of the Republic. Blame the victim and ignore the actual oppressors. But it’s working quite well with white voters who have every reason to be angry in the ongoing economic downturn. And are casting about for someone to blame.
That’s why it’s refreshing to see an initiative taking shape in Cambridge to expand immigrant rights at the local level. Last week, City Manager Richard Rossi announced that a city Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship that was created at the high water mark of immigrant rights activism nationwide in 2006 is at last searching for candidates to fill its 11 seats. That is an interesting development on its own merits. Especially given the apparent commonplace of dormant municipal committees. But the story of how the commission’s reanimation came to pass is even more interesting.
There are a significant number of immigrants in Cambridge. No surprise, given its world-famous universities, the large population of foreign born scholars they attract, the enterprises that set up shop nearby to avail themselves of those scholars, and the many immigrant service workers attracted to jobs connected to the university-driven economy (although most of them cannot afford to live where they work given a housing market that has become wildly expensive since rent control was defeated by the real estate industry in 1994). Not that a sizeable immigrant community is a new development, as previous generations of immigrants found work in the city’s once-strong industrial sector and put down deep roots that persist today in neighborhoods like East Cambridge and North Cambridge. Still, the percentage of immigrants has been on the rise again in Cambridge for some time.
Looking at the 2010-2014 estimate data from the US Census Bureau American Community Survey for Cambridge, out of a population of 106,844, an impressive 30,075 residents or 28.15 percent are foreign born. Placing the city in the top dozen Massachusetts municipalities for immigrant population, according to a report by The Immigrant Learning Center. Of that total, the number of voting age non-citizen residents is 17,333 or 18.41 percent. Meaning that close to 20 percent of Cambridge residents have no representation in city politics. A statistic that includes an unknown number of undocumented immigrants—who have all been officially welcomed to Cambridge since it renewed its status as a sanctuary city for refugees and migrants without papers in 2006.
Since the early 1990s, there have been a number of attempts by immigrant advocates and the Cambridge City Council to give documented immigrants a voice in local elections by instituting non-citizen voting in local elections. Each time, the effort ran into the same problem: it was not possible to enact such a city ordinance without the state legislature passing a home rule petition first. And the legislature has long been conservative on such matters—partially due to the anti-immigrant constituencies of many suburban and rural politicians. As such, no plan for including undocumented immigrants in a Cambridge municipal voting ordinance has ever been floated. Having precisely zero chance of passing muster in the legislature under current conditions.
Despite the difficult political hurdles to surmount at the state level, Councillor Nadeem Mazen has expressed interest in taking a fresh shot at making it possible for documented immigrants that have not yet become naturalized citizens to vote in city council and school committee races. His approach, however, has been somewhat different than that of his predecessors.
Mazen and his aide Daniel Schwartz have organized advocacy groups on several issues—including non-citizen voting. Emmanuel “Manny” Lusardi, a retired retail executive who strongly identifies with his family’s immigrant roots, got involved in the non-citizen voting advocacy group early on, and soon recruited Sylvie de Marrais—a recent Boston University graduate and restaurant server with a passion for expanding immigrant rights—to work with him. Noting what he calls her “exceptional organizational and leadership abilities,” Lusardi encouraged de Marrais to become the group’s leader.
Understanding that it remains difficult to get a home rule petition passed on even documented non-citizen voting, the advocacy group began looking for some stopgap measure that would get more immigrant representation in Cambridge city government sooner rather than later. A few weeks back, they hit upon the idea of organizing a push for a non-voting immigrant representative on the council. While looking into its feasibility, however, they started studying the positive experience of Boston and other cities that had established immigrant affairs offices. Mazen and other city officials liked that approach, and the non-citizen voting advocacy group then started organizing to create a Cambridge immigrant affairs office.
Not long after, they discovered the never-activated Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship, alerted City Manager Rossi, and were gratified last week when he announced a search for the 11 members needed to get it in motion. Later that week, Mazen convened a joint meeting of three city council committees to discuss immigrant representation and resources in Cambridge. It was attended by councillors Dennis Carlone, Jan Devereux, and Timothy Toomey, Vice Mayor Marc McGovern, Mayor Denise Simmons, a number of city officials, and special guest An Le of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Advancement in Boston.The arc of the resulting discussion bent towards empowering the new commission to work on a variety of tasks—including better coordination of city services for immigrants, and organizing an annual Immigrants Day at Cambridge City Hall—and ordering a study of an aspect of the non-citizen voting plan that could slow immigrants’ naturalization processes if an agreement isn’t worked out with US Citizenship and Immigration Services. But the various motions agreed upon at the meeting towards those goals will need to be passed by the full council in the coming weeks before they can be operationalized.
The non-citizen voting advocacy group—now called the Immigrant Advocacy Group of Cambridge—will certainly have a tough time getting all of its expanding agenda of reforms enacted in a period of anti-immigrant rhetoric and tight budgets at all levels of government. Even in the so-called “People’s Republic.” But its activists have done a fine job out of the gate. And its working relationship with a sitting politician seems to be an innovation worthy of notice. With the Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship slated to start meeting in the fall, and forward motion on a non-citizen voting ordinance and an immigrant affairs office, the advocacy group offers a political model that both democratizes and humanizes the debate over how our cities and towns should treat immigrants—whether documented or undocumented. A model that other municipalities should think seriously about emulating.
Cambridge residents who would like to get active with the group should check out its Facebook page.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.