The issue of citizenship status of potential Keizer City Councilors will not die. The flames were fanned at a council work session this week.
In August the council voted to require that youth councilors be electors in the city of Keizer. That means they have to be eligible to be elected to the council if and when they are 18 years of age. The vote was part of a council subcommittee’s update of policies and rules.
The timing was unfortunate. During his tenure, the council learned that Hugo Nicolas, a McNary High School student—who served well in that position—was an undocumented immigrant. He was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was 11 years old. His background and story became public when he was spotlighted in news stories about applying for President Obama’s Deferred Action.
Keizer is not an island. We are not a little town anymore. National issues come knocking on our door with more frequency. It shouldn’t be surprising that this issue came up. What is unfortunate is the way it was handled. There were teachable moments here and an opportunity to be a leader for other municipalities.
The politically expedient thing to do would have been to contact local Hispanic leaders, not to give them a veto over the ruling, but to open a discussion about the purpose of the rule. There are no minority members serving as councilors or as department heads. With a citizenry that has a large Hispanic population, we would hope that those affected by this or any other ordinance or rule that affects groups would have get the chance to have a hearing. People are reasonable and will understand when given the rationale for a rule.
Another teachable moment could be targeted at potential youth councilors themselves. It is too narrow to hope the students might someday sit on the council. The youth councilorship should be used to introduce students to local government, whether they eye a future council seat or not.
What better way to imbue American democracy than a stint as a youth councilor?
One of the messages delivered by those opposing the council’s citizenship rules was not to exclude anyone who may want to be a youth councilor. By allowing someone who is not a citizen in this position, the council and the city will be leaders in bringing into the establishment those who feel they have been shunned.
But it is a two way street. It rings a bit hollow to hear people say they are not included in the process, not appointed to city boards, commissions and task forces. It is not the council or the city’s duty to go into the community to seek candidates. The city declares vacancies on commissions and the like for several weeks, using newspapers, their own web site and our local public access television channel.
If a part of the community feels underrepresented it is their duty to fix that. No one stands in the way of any group from applying for positions on citizen panels. A group can’t bemoan the lack of representation if they themselves are not part of the process.
When a member of an underrepresented group steps up, they should be celebrated. One can argue that under no circumstances should an undocumented student be allowed to be a youth councilor. Whether an undocumented student is from Mexico, Canada, Russia or Iraq, shouldn’t matter. Most will work harder than their peers to prove they are worthy of becoming an American. When a young person is brought into this country, works hard and does all the right things, they should be helped to attain their goal of becoming a citizen, not vilified.