Takoma Park's Trendy Gesture

November 14, 1991

Voters in Takoma Park last week narrowly approved a referendum calling for the extension of municipal voting rights to non-citizens. Sometimes derided as "Berkeley East," Takoma Park has a history of trendy gestures. It has proclaimed itself a nuclear-free zone and a sanctuary for Central American refugees. Now it has declared that aliens, legal or not, shouldn't be discriminated against just for not being American.

That sounds noble, and furthermore appears at first sight to rest upon a principle as old as the Republic -- no taxation without representation. An alien who rents or owns property and pays taxes in Takoma Park has as great a stake as any citizen in its governance.

The subtext, however, is that citizenship is an irrelevant triviality like hair color or dietary habits that ought to have no civic consequences. Nonsense! Citizenship is allegiance. Citizenship is commitment. Citizenship is an undertaking to bear society's burdens, as well as receive its benefits.

Takoma Park's resident aliens may say that they have made that undertaking by investing their lives and their money in the town; passage of the referendum amounts to a recognition by their neighbors of municipal citizenship. Still, it is a careless precedent that reinforces a troubling tendency in American society to claim rights without acknowledging responsibilities. Couples who refuse the commitment of marriage, for example, still think themselves entitled to marital health-insurance benefits.

We doubt that very many downtrodden sanctuary-seekers inhabit Takoma Park as "illegals," or that any such will call attention to themselves by registering to vote. The practical benefit of Takoma Park's gesture falls mostly on settled, middle-class residents who simply haven't taken the time or trouble to make a commitment to their adopted country.

America has always welcomed immigrants, and should continue to do so. But it has a right in return to ask for their allegiance before giving them a voter's voice in running our affairs.

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