As the parent of a 14-year-old student in San Francisco Unified School District, I pay close attention to the decisions and actions taken by the city’s school board. Like any concerned parent, I want the best for my child. And in the past several school board elections, including the recent recall, I have exercised my right to vote to protect her education.
But Thursday, the San Francisco Superior Court might take that right away from me and every other noncitizen parent in the city.
Since the passage of Proposition N in 2016, San Francisco has allowed noncitizen immigrant parents with a child eligible for the school district to vote in Board of Education elections. Voting eligibility extends to permanent residents, immigrants with temporary visas — like students or workers in the tech industry — as well as undocumented immigrants. This week, however, the court is hearing Lacy v. San Francisco, a challenge to city Ordinance 128-18, which gives noncitizen immigrant parents this voting right.
It is critical that the ordinance continue to stand.
Immigrant families face particular challenges within the school system, including school-family communication gaps, language accessibility and technology access. A 2017 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children of immigrants are more likely to struggle in school and more likely to live in poverty. The report also found that while children of immigrants represent less than a quarter of the country’s child population, they account for nearly a third of those from low-income families.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated many of the challenges these families face, with many students from immigrant families disproportionately experiencing economic uncertainty, food insecurity and learning loss. While the direct health impact of COVID-19 on noncitizens is not well understood, a May 2022 study found that communities with larger proportions of noncitizens had higher COVID-19 mortality rates.
No one understands how these challenges affect the education of our children better than we do — which makes us noncitizen parents the best people to weigh in how the San Francisco school district can meet our children’s needs. But without the right to vote, how will we be able to ensure that those responsible for our children’s education actually listen to us?
Voting is what allows me to make public comments at school board meetings and know that my feedback will be taken seriously.
Those opposing noncitizen parents’ right to vote in school board elections would have you believe that the right to vote is inextricably linked to citizenship. But noncitizen voting is not a new concept in this country and is in fact rooted in American history and tradition. Before the rise of anti-immigrant movements in the early 1900s, noncitizens voted in local, state and even federal elections in as many as 40 states and federal territories. The restricting of noncitizen voting was just one of many discriminatory strategies used at the time to disenfranchise voters, including poll taxes, literacy tests and registration requirements.
Why can’t parents like me just wait until we become naturalized citizens? Because naturalization is not always an option. Many immigrant parents will not be able to become a U.S. citizen before their child graduates from high school while others do not have a pathway to citizenship. A broken immigration system should not prevent community members from having a say in the policies and leaders impacting their children’s educational experiences.
Immigrant voting is based on a founding principle of our country: no taxation without representation, or in other words, no decisions about us, without us. Noncitizen immigrants are long-term residents of our communities, pay taxes and hold up our local economies, often without ever being included in the decision-making processes. Expanding access to voting strengthens our democracy and incentivizes community members to participate in and shape our society. Our city needs more community engagement, not less.
Knowing I have the ability to vote encourages me to learn about the educational policies governing the school district, the positions and beliefs of the school board members and each candidate’s plans to address issues of accessibility, education equity and mental wellness. Removing that right can only lead to disenfranchisement.
The San Francisco Board of Education is responsible for policies impacting the needs and well-being of all district students, not just those with U.S. citizen parents. For the 54% of children in the city with at least one immigrant parent, noncitizen voting has been a crucial way to make their concerns visible and hold school board members accountable.
I believe in the value of civic participation and have always spoken to my daughter about the importance of voting. As a parent, I want to instill in her by example that voting is both a right and responsibility of every member of society.
Like voting rights for people of color, women and young adults, noncitizen voting in San Francisco was a right won through decades of grassroots organizing and advocacy. Now more than ever, maintaining the right for immigrant parents to vote is just one step toward creating a more equitable, transparent and representative school district that supports all students, rather than just some.
Amos Lim is a noncitizen parent and the Economic Justice Program manager at Chinese Affirmative for Action.