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Meet the first noncitizen to hold public office in the District



7 min

As Abel Amene walks through his neighborhood in Northwest D.C. on a recent afternoon, he stops in front of an abandoned home. The windows are covered with plywood and the yard is a towering tangle of yellow grass and weeds.

“This one is not even trying,” he says, expressing his frustration at how houses that could allow more families to move into the neighborhood have been allowed to become blights.

He keeps walking and stops at the intersection of 5th and Kennedy Streets. After a shooting several years ago, former D.C. police chief Peter Newsham described that spot as “the most dangerous intersection” in the Fourth District. On the day Abel pauses to take in the scene, police cars sit in front of a carryout on one corner, and the remnants of memorial occupy another. Wax covers the sidewalk around a religious candle labeled “guardian angel.”

“This could be a 15-minute neighborhood,” Abel says, referring to an urban planning concept in which an area is designed to allow residents to get most of their daily needs met by traveling only a short distance. He explains that the neighborhood needs a grocery store and a library, and that intersection would serve as the perfect location for those. “Putting a public library here would do more to improve public safety than any police. When people ask, ‘How do we improve public safety?’ It’s about land use.”

Abel, an Ethiopian immigrant who prefers people call him by his first name because of cultural naming practices, was sworn in as a D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner on Friday, making him the first noncitizen to hold public office in the nation’s capital.

That designation — the first noncitizen — means something in a city that has increasingly seen immigrant communities organize to fight for more rights, including the ability to register to vote. But it also takes just spending an afternoon with Abel in his Ward 4 neighborhood to see that what concerns him are the same issues that concern many D.C. residents. Among them: traffic, housing, park space, public safety and public health.

“This entire row of houses has lead pipes,” he says, passing another street. “I need to talk with them. They qualify for a free program and they don’t even know it.”

A doctor tried to renew his passport. Now he’s no longer a citizen.

Abel was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States as a teenager in 1999. The 38-year-old, whose family was granted asylum, is a Green Card holder, which makes him a permanent resident.

More than 50,000 noncitizens are estimated to live in D.C., and Abel has spent the last several years working with different groups to advance their rights and opportunities. He served as a key organizer in the effort to get D.C. lawmakers to pass legislation last year that allowed noncitizens, including undocumented immigrants, to vote in local races. For nearly a decade, council members tried to introduce similar legislation, but those efforts did not move forward because of a lack of interest or support, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) told The Washington Post in an article that ran after the council voted on the issue.

“This time around, it felt like there were better organized efforts to help advocate for it,” Allen said at that time. “That made the difference.”

Sarah Graham, a spokesperson for the D.C. Board of Elections, said that Abel was the first noncitizen to register to vote in the city and that three noncitizens have registered to vote so far.

Alana Eichner, co-director of the D.C. chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represents many immigrant women of color, recalled watching Abel work on that voting legislation and other organizing efforts.

D.C. street vendors have long worked in fear. That might change.

“People were like, ‘Wow, who is this person who is an extremely effective organizer who seems to be in all these places at once and is not being paid by an organization to do that?’” Eichner said. She said having someone like Abel hold a local office means having someone in that space “who knows what it really means to open the doors to D.C. politics to people who have been left out or faced barriers to their participation.”

ANCs represent their neighborhoods and Abel is now the ANC of 4D02, which is a wonky way of describing a few blocks around 5th and Kennedy streets. Abel said a requirement for him to qualify for the office was that he had to be a registered voter, which is how the noncitizen voting act opened that door for him. The position is unpaid, but the District’s agencies “are required to give the ANCs’ recommendations ‘great weight,’” the city’s website says.

Abel’s swearing in is newsworthy because of his citizenship status, but he brings a unique perspective to the role that goes beyond that. He can speak as a renter. He can speak as someone who has experienced homelessness. He can speak as a college student who is finally finishing what he started years ago and had to abandon.

After high school, Abel enrolled in the University of Maryland. During his junior year, as he tells it, he reduced his workload, thinking it would help him improve his grades and focus. Instead, he said, going from full-time to a part-time caused him to lose state and federal grants. He said he couldn’t enroll again until he paid a balance of about $10,000.

“The lowest times I’ve ever had were immediately after dropping out of the university and not being able to register again,” he said. “I was going from job to job working in restaurants, and eventually, I came to the point where I couldn’t pay rent, so I ended up basically homeless around the campus.”

Abel said it took him more than 15 years, but he finally paid off that debt and enrolled in the university again this past fall. He is now finishing up the requirements he needed for a degree in physics and he is pursuing a degree in economics.

Economics is one reason he gave for why immigrants deserve to vote in local elections. They pay taxes and should have a say in how public dollars are used, he said. They also have children in the schools and have a stake in public safety. “In a place like D.C., the experience of immigrants is very relevant to almost every single decision,” he said.

House Republicans and 42 Democrats tried to block the D.C. law, but the effort died in the Senate, allowing D.C. to join other jurisdictions, including Takoma Park, Md., in permitting noncitizens to vote. A group of D.C. voters also filed a lawsuit challenging the legislation. A Post article on the suit say it “argues the legislation ‘dilutes’ the votes of citizens and notes that it permits noncitizens to be elected to public office, including as mayor.” That lawsuit was moved to federal court.

On the day Abel shows me his neighborhood, we meet at Mita Cafe. The business is owned by a couple who is Japanese and Ethiopian, and the menu reflects that. A customer can get sushi and sambusas. In that way, it’s not hard to find examples that show the diversity of the neighborhood. On the side of one building, a large mural shows three people breaking chains and reads “Immigrant Day of Resilience.”

As we walk outside, Abel talks about the concerns of his neighbors. He spoke to many when he went door-to-door to collect signatures, which he needed to fill the vacancy that was left open midterm. He points out long-standing construction projects, a major street that poses safety issues and one-way roads that cars have been known to travel down the wrong way.

After Abel worked on the noncitizen voting act, he received hateful and racist messages. He knows that stepping into office — and speaking about it publicly with me — could draw that again. He chose to talk anyway.

“In some ways,” he says, “I want to get it out of the way, so I can get down to work.”

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