Non-Citizens Voters Reluctant to Register For School Board Election

Non-citizen parents can vote in school board elections for the first time — but fears around ICE mean only 17 people have registered.

Non-citizen guardians in San Francisco have heard two conflicting messages for this year’s school board election: You can finally have an electoral voice in your child’s education, but the federal government can access your information as a result.

Which one is winning? It appears the latter. Department of Elections Director John Arntz says that after months of outreach, they’ve only received a paltry 17 non-citizenship registration forms.

Thanks to a 2016 ballot measure, non-citizens can vote in the school board elections if they meet the following qualifications: They are of legal voting age, they’re not in prison or on parole for a felony conviction, and they’re parents or legal guardians of children under the age of 19 in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the measure passed in the same election that gave the presidency to Donald Trump, whose first week in office included banning people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the country.

“In a deeply anti-immigrant moment in our national politics, with a federal administration targeting immigrants and refugees, I’m not surprised that our non-citizen community members are afraid of stepping forward,” says Jonathan Stein, a staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice who studies non-citizen voting rights nationwide. “The elections office has a difficult balance to strike.”

The proposition’s victory soon gave way to reality. In May, supervisors approved the inclusion of an “important notice” for non-citizen residents, warning that any information provided to register to vote could be obtained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Voter-registration information is considered confidential, but campaigns, candidates, journalists, and researchers with non-government agencies also have access.)

In addition, the notice advises immigrants applying for naturalization that they will be asked if they registered or voted in any election and that they should first consult with an immigration attorney.

Even with high fears surrounding the Trump administration’s actions, Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer — a former school board member who advocated for the measure — believed that 100 or more non-citizens would have registered to vote.

“As we started to see the president, separate families, I had a feeling that this was really going to impact the registration,” Fewer says. “It’s not that they don’t want to vote, it’s that they’re weighing everything.”

More than half of San Francisco children have one or more immigrant parent, according to the Mission Economic Development Agency. A 2002 report found that parental involvement increases a child’s attendance rates, aids in the development of their social skills, raises the likelihood of a college education — and results in higher grades.

School board candidate Gabriela Lopez — a bilingual teacher raised by immigrant parents — says that a lot of families she spoke to earlier this year didn’t know that they had the right to vote in local elections. But there are also parents who simply don’t feel comfortable providing the federal government with their personal information.

“The immigrant community does so much for their students,” Lopez says. “To give them the ability to participate and vote just like any other citizen would really impact the people who want to represent them.”

The low number of registered non-citizen voters isn’t due to a lack of trying. Since July, Arntz says elections staff did registration trainings with community organizations, went into schools, sent 35,000 informational packets home with students, put up posters, and tabled at events.

The department also secured a $150,000 grant gifted to Chinese for Affirmative Action, which has used the outreach money to educate new voters. Newspaper ads will soon appear in multiple languages, and a citywide election mailer is going out to every household in the city, whether they’re registered to vote or not.

“We have the capacity for many thousands to join the process,” Arntz says.

Now, he adds, it’s just a matter of people registering to vote.

As a former school board member, Fewer says training immigrant parents to be advocates in education does affect the board’s decisions. But ultimately, she feels that fear in undocumented communities will linger for a couple election cycles after the Trump administration is out of power.

“We’ve been trying hard to bring residents who are citizens out of the darkness,” Fewer says. “I think we’re going to have to regain a lot of trust for those that are the most vulnerable in that situation.”

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly. |  @idamoj

Related Stories