Dhaval Avlani has lived in Legacy Farms for the past 13 years with his wife and son. He came to Hopkinton on an H-1B visa as a worker with technical skills desirable to American companies.
What has frustrated him and other Legacy Farms residents who also work under the H-1B visa program, he said, is that the monolithic process toward U.S. citizenship prevents them from having the right to vote on town issues that impact them as taxpayers.
“I feel like it’s taxation without representation,” he said in a recent interview with the Independent.
In mid-October, Avlani was the only resident who attended a meeting about the Elmwood School replacement building held at Faith Community Church of Hopkinton geared toward Legacy Farms residents.
The reason, he explained, is that many Legacy Farms residents feel that because they ultimately can’t vote, they become despondent.
“There’s a whole chunk of the population that doesn’t get a say in how those funds are going to be allocated,” said Avlani. “If you have 500 homes with two adults per home, that’s 1,000 people who don’t have a voice.”
“The situation described by the Legacy Farms resident indeed raises a crucial issue of representation and civic participation, echoing historical sentiments of ‘taxation without representation,’ ” stated Select Board vice chair Shahidul Mannan in an email to the Independent. “It’s vital to empathize with the South Asian residents who, while contributing to their community and owning homes, find themselves unable to vote on matters that directly affect them.
“In the long run, I certainly value and acknowledge that it’s essential for us policymakers to consider the contributions and interests of long-term residents, irrespective of their citizenship status,” Mannan continued. “Addressing issues like school and town matters goes beyond partisanship; it’s about ensuring that all members of a community have a say in matters that impact their lives and homes.”
Citizenship under H-1B visa program can take years
The H-1B visa program, under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, allows American employers to hire foreign non-immigrant workers in specialty occupations.
“The intent of the H-1B provisions is to help employers who cannot otherwise obtain needed business skills and abilities from the U.S. workforce by authorizing the temporary employment of qualified individuals who are not otherwise authorized to work in the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor website.
“Once you have a labor certification and a green card process put in place here, the employer files the application saying that the person has the skill sets they’re looking for,” Avlani explained. “This is what sets what your priority date is.”
Some Legacy Farms residents have priority dates in the early 2010s, he said, including him.
“And they won’t be able to vote for another 10 to 15 years,” he continued. “I think that’s important for the town to know.”
The Independent on Oct. 27 contacted the U.S. Department of Labor to try to verify data on H-1B visa recipients in Hopkinton. No information was provided after one week.
“It is an interesting dilemma that the process now takes so long,” stated state Rep. James Arena-DeRosa in an email to the Independent. “[T]own residents who are settled, owning homes, paying taxes and very engaged in a community are still not U.S. citizens and are not eligible to vote (even in local elections).”
Estimate: Scores of Legacy Farms residents ineligible to vote
Avlani considered Legacy Farms North and Legacy Farms South when calculating the number of people on H-1B visas who cannot vote. Out of the 700 homes, he estimated that about 200 people are eligible.
He deduced this number from his membership in a group of 120 registered voters at Legacy Farms. This group was formed to advocate for the town’s acceptance of Legacy Farms North Road as a public way, which Town Meeting approved in 2020. Before, school buses could not pick up students there, forcing them to walk to Frankland Road, Avlani explained.
“I presumed that most people have either the husband or the wife on the group, but not both,” said Avlani. The rest of the residents, he assumed, are here on H-1B visas, unless they recently have become citizens.
“There are some people that are actually waiting for their kids who were born here to become adults so they can sponsor them for citizenship,” said Avlani. “In five years, my child will be able to sponsor me.”
Said Avlani: “Eighteen years is a long time to wait for a green card.”
Arena-DeRosa noted that there is a bill currently before the Legislature — HD 3745 — that addresses this issue in Somerville.
“There actually is some discussion at the state level that would allow (but not mandate) towns the option to allow residents to vote in local elections even if they are not U.S. citizens,” he wrote. “To me, I am fine with communities having this local option, but it is up to them on whether to move forward.”
Town Clerk explains voting data, Town Meeting procedure
In a recent interview with the Independent, Town Clerk Connor Degan confirmed that Precinct 1, which includes Legacy Farms, has the most residents who don’t vote.
“There are more nonvoting residents in Hopkinton than ever before,” Degan said. “When you look at that number from Legacy Farms, that’s about 1% of the adult population.”
In Precinct 1, 1,191 residents out of 3,362 residents are not voters, he shared. This data shows that more than 35% of this precinct is comprised of non-voters and suggests that Avlani’s hypothesis is correct.
Degan suggested “voting by proxy” for non-citizens.
“If some residents cannot vote, I would encourage them to talk to their neighbors who can,” said Degan. “And by neighbors, I mean the whole community at large, not just people in their circle.”
Non-citizens can influence the process, Degan added. There are public comment periods at many town board and committee meetings.
He also noted the impact that the Legacy Farms community had in advocating with Eversource for a meeting about the LNG facility as an example of the impact non-citizens can make.
Mannan echoed Degan’s sentiment.
“Community members and advocates can come together to raise awareness about the issue and lobby for changes in local budgets and policies — in this case for the Elmwood School,” he stated, “engaging with local government officials like myself and my colleagues, talking to other voting residents and giving us their opinions and feedback.”
He also stressed the importance of nonprofit organizations dedicated to promoting South Asian culture, such as the South Asian Circle of Hopkinton, as well as other advocacy groups in town to make their concerns known.