Over the past two decades, immigrants have transformed East Boston from a mostly Italian-American enclave to a neighborhood that is majority Latino, with immigrants from Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil.
Now residents of East Boston are preparing to vote Nov. 5 on a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs that could change their neighborhood even more.
But census figures show that almost half of the adults in this immigrant enclave will not cast a ballot about the casino, the mayoral race, or anything else — because they cannot.
They are not US citizens.
Boston’s City Council declared that only East Boston residents should vote on the casino, because it will be in the neighborhood. But census figures show that about 46 percent of the adults in East Boston cannot vote. Some are legal residents waiting for citizenship, while others cannot become citizens because they are on temporary work permits or here illegally.
“It underscores the injustice of the process,” said Pedro Morales, a Harvard Divinity School student and a lead organizer against the casino, who cannot vote because he is a citizen only of Mexico. “Just a few handfuls of people get to impose their will on the vast majority of people that have actually rebuilt this neighborhood.”
But Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict controls on immigration, said the neighborhood has to follow the law.
“The laws we have that require citizenship in order to vote are good ones,” she said.
City records show that voter turnout has plunged in Eastie as immigration soars. Boston Election Department figures show that 11,981 East Boston residents cast ballots in 1980, but only 6,469 voted in 2010 — the steepest decline in the city.
Felix G. Arroyo, a city councilor who ran for mayor in the preliminary elections, said he met many immigrants who supported him, but could not vote, while campaigning in Maverick Square. He was the only Latino candidate, but he did not win a majority of voters in a single Eastie precinct.
“Frankly, it’s one of the reasons why we have to continue to fight for immigration reform,” Arroyo said, referring to the push to allow immigrants here without legal papers to become US citizens. “It really has an effect when you’re not eligible to vote.”
State Representative Carlo Basile, a Democrat from East Boston and the son of Italian immigrants, said Congress should make it easier for people to become citizens so that they can participate in their communities.
“It’s not fair, but the law’s the law,” Basile said of the number of people who are ineligible to vote in East Boston. “Everybody should be pounding Washington for reform.”
According to census figures compiled by the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, immigrants make up about 50 percent of Eastie’s 41,000 residents. More than 85 percent of the neighborhood’s children are US citizens, and the vast majority were born here, according to the council.
But almost 8 in 10 immigrant adults are not citizens.
In interviews, immigrants say they are mired in a confusing mix of legal statuses. Some are legal residents who can apply for citizenship if they can afford the $680 application fee and meet other requirements. Others, such as Salvadorans, have temporary permission to stay because of disasters in their homeland, but they are not allowed to become citizens. Neither can hundreds of others here illegally, though they are homeowners, taxpayers, and parents of schoolchildren.
“These are the people who are going to be affected by the vote” on the casino, said Astrid Osorio, 45, a former university professor from Colombia who lives in East Boston. She is not a citizen yet but is going through the process. Meanwhile, she is volunteering for a nonprofit to help get out the vote.
Advocates for immigrants are so concerned about immigrants getting shut out of the casino referendum that they considered launching a fight to get noncitizens who live in East Boston the right to vote. But they soon abandoned the idea because they felt they would not be successful.
In the last decade, Amherst and Cambridge passed resolutions to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections, but the laws did not take effect because the state Legislature and the governor did not approve. Lawmakers will hold a hearing on Amherst’s proposal on Nov. 20.
Though they cannot vote on the casino, immigrants are finding other ways to make their voices heard, at public meetings, via petitions, or knocking on doors to urge others to vote.
On Wednesday, a team of volunteers from the nonprofit Neighbors United for a Better East Boston approached the tenements near the flat, gray waters that flow under the Tobin Bridge. Among them were Osorio and Ivette Siliézar, a former human rights lawyer from El Salvador, both here legally but not yet citizens. They wore matching T-shirts and carried voter lists, and were almost halfway to their goal to reach 1,000 voters by Nov. 5.
The volunteers cannot vote, but they canvassed past sundown. They climbed to the tops of triple-deckers, waved at residents through windows, and even woke up Tomás Márquez, 53, who rises at 4 a.m. to work at a local hotel.
Marquez, born in Puerto Rico, rubbed his eyes and promised to vote, but noted that many others could not.
“Many people here don’t have their papers,” he said.
Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer at Suffolk Downs, said he was not aware that so many immigrants in East Boston could not vote. He said he suspected that they would largely favor the casino, if they could cast a ballot.
“I think there’s strong support for the job opportunities,” he said.
Neighbors United has not taken a position on the casino, but immigrants interviewed were split this week in busy Maverick Square, where workers catch buses day and night to paint houses or cook in restaurants. Many are eager for the possibility of better-paying jobs in a poor neighborhood.
“It will bring jobs. That’s why we’re here,” said a woman in a purple jacket with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup, chatting with a friend. She cannot vote because she is here illegally from Colombia, and she declined to give her name.
But others are worried that a casino would increase traffic, crime, and the price of housing in a place where most residents pay rent.
“Most people here say no,” said Jose Pineda, a 50-year-old janitor at Harvard from El Salvador, as he rushed to work Wednesday night.
But he cannot vote, because he only has a green card.
“You don’t count,” he said with a frown, and rushed off to work.