New York City – Agha Saleh came to the United States inspired by democratic ideals, but it took him years to achieve a basic one here: voting.
He'd lived through political upheaval in his native Pakistan and was eager to be part of America's storied "government of the people." But for the eight years until he got citizenship, it struck him as "a dream, perhaps, this democracy of the United States," recalls Saleh, 51.
Now a cafe owner and community group leader in New York City, Saleh is among a roster of immigrant activists, voting-rights advocates and lawmakers championing a controversial proposal to give an estimated 800,000 green card and visa holders the right to vote in city elections.
The proposal, aired at a City council hearing Thursday, would mark the biggest expansion yet of efforts to enfranchise immigrants. It may amplify a decades-long debate over whether voting rights should be reserved for citizenship or embrace newcomers on the premise that they also have a stake in the society.
In a country that describes itself as a nation of immigrants, many states once let non-citizens vote, but those policies changed by the 1930s.
The idea has had something of a renaissance in recent decades. A half-dozen Maryland cities now allow it, four Massachusetts towns have OK'd it but are awaiting state approval, and Chicago lets immigrants vote in school board elections. But immigrant suffrage initiatives were defeated at the polls in San Francisco and Portland, Maine.
Immigrant and voting-rights advocates see non-citizen suffrage as a matter of taxpayer fairness and civic engagement. But some officeholders and others view the vote as a fundamental province of citizenship, a privilege to hold out as a goal for new arrivals.
"Voting is the most important right we are granted as citizens, and you should have to go through the process of becoming a citizen and declaring allegiance to this country before being given that right," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said through a spokeswoman.
Independent Party candidate Adolfo Carrion Jr. also opposes the proposal.
“There are very few things that bring me to the point of being almost speechless," Carrion said in a statement to Fox News Latino, "This is one of them."
"Being a citizen of the U.S. is a privilege that carries with it an awesome and sacred responsibility – the right to vote," he said. "If we water that down, we are essentially removing one of the building blocks of our democracy, let alone violating state law. To suggest that elected officials will not represent the interests of non-citizens is insulting to all of us who have spent our lives working to represent new immigrants and help them become U.S. citizens."
But Democratic candidate, Erick Salgado, a minister from Staten Island, firmly supports the proposal.
"They're in the country legally, they pay taxes, they contribute, and they are impacted negatively or positively by the actions of their elected leaders," Salgado said to Fox News Latino. "They should be able to have a say in the election of those leaders. Since the majority of legal immigrants are Latinos, this law would benefit our community."
No vote has been scheduled on the New York measure, which faces legal as well as political questions.
Non-citizens were able to vote for the city school board for three decades, until the board was disbanded soon after Bloomberg took office in 2002.
Councilman Daniel Dromm's proposal would open all city elections to foreigners who are in the country legally and have lived in the city for at least six months. They would register as a separate category of "municipal voters" but would vote alongside citizens.
Jose Torrero left Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to join his daughter in New York four years ago and has a green card. He was active in politics in his homeland, and he'd like to vote for New York candidates who share his views on immigration, job creation and other issues. The 70-year-old is preparing to apply for citizenship, but it's likely years away.
"We're all involved in politics since we're born. And the people who look for government to work for them have to be involved in the political process," Torrero said through a translator in an interview.
Backers of immigrant voting invoke a most American complaint — taxation without representation — and they note that citizenship can take a decade or more to acquire. Advocates also say the vote would help immigrants engage with their political leaders, and vice versa.
"I think that their voices will be heard louder and clearer," City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said in an interview. An immigrant himself from Licey al Medio, Dominican Republic, he taught in New York public schools for years before he could vote for city leaders.
New York state election law prohibits immigrants from voting, and advocates and the mayor's office dispute whether the City Council has the authority to allow it in the city. In any event, it would require federal authorities' review for compliance with the Voting Rights Act.
City Board of Elections lawyers expressed concerns this week about the potential costs and logistics of implementing the plan, but they didn't opine on the underlying idea.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.