2004-04-23 / Columnists

From the Editor's Desk

By Howard Schwach

From the Editor's Desk

In my almost 65 years I have written literally thousands of things for publication, ranging from stories in The Wave to a major textbook series, "Foundations in American History," which is published by Globe Books.

"Foundations" is written for seventh, eighth and eleventh graders as well as for adults who need a remedial text. It is written largely at a fifth grade level.

I am proud of the textbooks because the series is used extensively by immigrants who are studying for the test to become American citizens, and it has helped thousands of men and women to achieve that goal.

Citizenship was a goal of tens of thousands over the years, those who came from other nations and wanted to become part of the national discourse.

That may no longer be true if the New York City Council has its way. Why become a citizen if you get all the benefits of citizenship without any of the bother of filing papers and taking a test?

Council members Bill Perkins and John Liu are working with ACORN (an organization that never lets the truth or the facts get in the way of its advocacy) to give non-citizens the right to vote in city elections simply because they live here.

I don't think that's a very good idea. First of all, the process of becoming a citizen is not an onerous one.

Come to the city and you get free health services, free schools, welfare, jobs and other public entitlements. Stay away from trouble with the law for a couple of years and file some papers, learn some basic English, study American History and Government, take a fairly easy test and you are a citizen.

What could be easier?

The Council members obviously think that just showing up is enough.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has come out against the measure.

"The essence of citizenship is the right to vote," Bloomberg said on his radio show. "You should go about becoming a citizen before you have the right to vote."

I don't find myself often agreeing with Bloomberg, but on this one, we're like two peas in a pod.

Those who favor the bill say that giving immigrants the right to vote would make politicians more responsive to their particular needs.

They are probably right, but so what? Let them go through the simple (but time-consuming) process of becoming citizens and then they can force the politicians to address their needs.

In fact, more than 90 percent of those who take the test each year earn a passing grade and become citizens.

According to published statistics, there are 1.6 million foreign-born residents of New York City. About one million of them would probably be eligible to vote under the council's plan. That would cause a sharp increase in the electorate and skew the makeup of that electorate.

One argument the proponents of the plan make is that the city has already allowed those non-citizens to vote in school elections, something they can no longer do unless they are parent association officials.

Those elections were narrow and focused on parents of children in the public schools. The city rightly gave them the ability to vote for school representatives, but that does not mean they should also get the right to vote for mayor and city council members.

Councilman John Liu, who has a large immigrant constituency, says that working taxpayers, as many immigrants are, should have the right to vote in city elections.

"The founding of our nation was based on the fundamental principles of democracy," he says. "All taxpayers and property owners at that time could vote."

Perhaps Liu should have to take the citizenship test. Voting rights were very limited. Women could not vote, even if they owned property (which was rare, but not unheard of), Blacks could not vote. Those who did not own property, even if they worked and paid taxes, could not vote.

Liu should have known that, unless he does know it but counted on the fact that readers of his op-ed piece in the Daily News would not know that.

Liu says that denying the immigrants the right to vote is akin to the question of "no taxation without representation" that led to the Revolutionary War. That is a laughable contention and Liu should be made by Gifford Miller to read a history book.

One more Liu contention from his op-ed piecev makes no sense to me.

"Let's also be clear on the reason why these New Yorkers want to become citizens," he wrote. "It's not so they can vote. People want to become citizens because they want to be Americans."

What is he thinking about?

Liu's final comment also begs for explanation.

"It's about getting back to a fundamental principle upon which our nation was founded. Back then, it took a tea party to stir things up. Perhaps it's time we borrowed a page from Boston's playbook," he concluded.

Perhaps what Liu wants is for a group of immigrants, dressed as Yankee baseball players, to throw Mayor Bloomberg into the Hudson River? Or, perhaps, Brooklyn Beer?

The New York Times, in an obvious move to move the debate to another level, ran an article in last Sunday's paper. Entitled, "Who Is Buried In Grant's Tomb? New Citizenship Test Is Planned," the article says that the new tests will move from rote memory to concepts, something that will make it more difficult to pass the test.

Rather than spitting out that there are three branches of government and that they are the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial Branch, an applicant will be asked to discuss how those three branches are inter-related and the balance of power between them.

I wonder how many adults who were born in America can answer that question.

Nevertheless, studying the Constitution is a small price to pay for becoming a part of the greatest nation in the world.

There should be no diminution of the concept of citizenship by giving away cheaply the greatest right of all - the right to vote.

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