Immigrants Rally for Right To Vote

Braving stiff winds that threatened to topple their multilingual signs and banners, nearly 200 Cantabrigians rallied on the steps of City Hall yesterday, asking the City Council to support extending the right to vote in School Committee elections to immigrants.

The voting rights campaign, which was initiated by the Eviction Free Zone, a tenant group, is currently seeking the approval of the council through a petition that has been endorsed by five of the eight councillors. The state legislature has the final say.

"This is a no-brainer," said Councillor Marjorie C. Decker. "We have people paying taxes, sending their children to our schools. We want their vote to have a voice on what our schools look like."

"When immigrants have the right to vote, we will have a better, stronger community," she added.

Massachusetts state representative Jarrett T. Barrios '90 said he fully supports extending voting rights to immigrants.

"We are letting the City Council know today that immigrants deserve the right to vote in school elections," Barrios said at the rally.

The School Committee itself has already expressed its approval, with a five-to-two vote in favor of expanding the franchise.

"We want a blow of social change that will blow away the barriers keeping immigrants from voting," said School Committee member E. Denise Simmons, speaking to the crowd as high winds whipped into pro-vote banners.

"I want you to share in shaping the schools," Simmons said. "Without a vote, you don't have a voice. We have to make the people on the School Committee accountable to you."

Voting rights campaign organizer Natalie Smith said she believes most Cantabrigians support the measure.

"This campaign has gone way beyond the Eviction Free Zone," Smith said.

Smith, who is an immigrant, has an eight year old daughter attending school in Cambridge.

"My School Committee vote would be for my child," she said.

Smith said she believes all parents in Cambridge should have a say in their children's education.

"We send our children to school and worry about their future," Smith said. "Yet we are excluded from the democratic process within our own community."

"Our children must be honored by equal representation," she added.

If the campaign secures the approval of the council, Barrios said he will lead the efforts for approval by the state legislature.

Barrios said he helped spearhead a recent bill providing two million dollars in funding for assistance programs to help immigrants who want to gain their citizenship.

"Change is incremental, but we are moving in the right direction," Barrios said.

As part of yesterday's May Day rally, several speakers also spoke in support of amnesty for working immigrants, hoping to protect them from exploitation by employers as well as deportation.

"Many people continue to live in fear of being deported," said Elena Letona, director of Centro Presente.

After the rally, the council held its regular weekly meeting, moving quickly through the agenda in less than an hour, so that councillors could attend the wake of former state representative Alvin E. Thompson last night.

According to Decker, the petition must move through the council's committee structure before it can be brought before the council.

Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio, who chairs the School Committee, has expressed some reservations.

"I still have some concerns on the impact on citizenship," Galluccio said.

"I am currently not in support of it, but I am still willing to listen [to supporters]."