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Politics & Policy

‘I feel angry’: Noncitizen immigrant parents lean into SF school board recall election

Angela Zhou signs up passerby to vote in the upcoming elections in Chinatown on Jan. 1, 2022. | Han Li

Angela Zhou didn’t take a break on New Year’s Day as she and other non-citizen immigrant parents traversed a busy street in San Francisco’s Chinatown to register more voters for the upcoming school board recall election.

“I will be voting for the first time,” said Zhou, a “green card” holder who was interviewed by The Standard in Cantonese. “I want to exercise my rights here.”

Public school parents’ frustration in San Francisco reached a tipping point during the pandemic, and three San Francisco Board of Education members—Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez, and Faauuga Moliga—are facing a Feb. 15 recall election after a string of controversies, including a widely ridiculed effort to rename many of the schools. The recall also comes on the heels of two recent decisions to give non-citizen parents a stronger voice in how the city’s public schools should operate.

In 2016, San Francisco passed a Charter amendment with 54% approval to allow non-citizen parents — including permanent residents (“green card” holders), visas holders, refugees, and undocumented immigrants — to vote in Board of Education elections, so more parents can weigh in on public school issues. In 2021, the city made non-citizen voting a permanent right for parents or guardians with at least one child under 19 years old for school board elections, including recalls.

“I feel angry,” said Zhou, a monolingual immigrant who has lived in Chinatown for over two decades. She noted her dissatisfaction stems from the Board of Education’s failure to more quickly open schools during the pandemic, as well as being tone-deaf regarding the parents’ concerns. She and others rounding up new voters on New Year’s Day said they plan to support the recall.

Angela Zhou signs up passerby to vote in the upcoming elections in Chinatown on Jan. 1, 2022. | Han Li

Zhou’s son is currently enrolled in Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, a public high school in the Russian Hill neighborhood.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey estimate data, San Francisco has about 297,000 foreign-born residents, and 192,000 of them have been naturalized, making the non-citizen population in the city roughly 105,000.

Ziwei Su, another Chinatown resident who immigrated to the U.S. 23 years ago, is also a long-time green card holder. Like Zhou, he will be voting for the first time in the February 15 recall election.

Su cited the controversial admissions changes at prestigious Lowell High School, which went from merit-based to a lottery, as the main reason that triggered him to get involved and vote. “It’s discrimination against Chinese kids,” he said, adding that voting as a non-citizen is “the rare right to speak up for the next generation.”

Ziwei Su signs up passerby to vote in the upcoming elections in Chinatown on Jan. 1, 2022. | Han Li

Officials for the committee opposing the recall — No On Recalls of School Board Commissioners Lopez, Collins, and Moliga — did not respond to requests for comment.

The non-citizen’s right to vote has been a long fight in San Francisco. Before the 2016’s passage, similar ballot measures were rejected by San Francisco voters in 2004 and 2010.

“That was a 15-year battle, but it was a historic pass to allow all parents to vote regardless of their immigration status,” said Cynthia Choi, the co-executive director of the civil rights organization Chinese for Affirmative Action, one of the major proponents of the 2016 ballot measure.

Choi expects more people will participate in the 2022 school board election because of Joe Biden’s win in the 2020’s presidential election, which lessened the “hostile political environment” for immigrants.

“It certainly helps to have a president of the U.S. to be more compassionate to immigrants,” Choi said.

The 2018 school board election was the first time non-citizen immigrants could vote, and data from the Department of Elections shows 59 people cast ballots. Those numbers declined in 2020 when just 36 people were registered and 31 voted. Current numbers show that 60 non-citizens have registered for the upcoming election.

For immigrants from China, choosing to be naturalized as American citizens means they have to give up their Chinese passports, as China does not recognize dual citizenships. For this reason, many Chinese immigrants prefer to instead be green card holders.

Zhou and Su said becoming a U.S. citizen to vote in all elections is still something they are carefully considering. “I plan to naturalize in a few years,” Zhou said, while Su said he has private reasons to remain a green card holder.