He'd lived through political upheaval in his native Pakistan and was eager to be part of America's storied "government of the people." But for the eight years until he got citizenship, it struck him as "a dream, perhaps, this democracy of the United States," recalls Saleh, 51.
Now a cafe owner and community group leader in New York City, Saleh is among a roster of immigrant activists, voting rights advocates and lawmakers championing a proposal to give an estimated 800,000 green card and visa holders the right to vote in city elections.
The proposal, aired at a City Council hearing Thursday, would mark the biggest expansion yet of efforts to enfranchise immigrants. It may amplify a decades-long debate over whether voting rights should be reserved for citizenship or embrace newcomers on the premise that they also have a stake in the society.
In a country that describes itself as a nation of immigrants, many states once let non-citizens vote, but those policies changed by the 1930s.
The idea has had something of a renaissance in recent decades. A half-dozen Maryland cities now allow it, and four Massachusetts towns have OK'd it but are awaiting state approval. But immigrant suffrage initiatives were defeated at the polls in San Francisco and Portland, Maine.
Immigrant and voting rights advocates see non-citizen suffrage as a matter of taxpayer fairness and civic engagement. But some officeholders and others view the vote as a fundamental province of citizenship, a privilege to hold out as a goal for new arrivals.
"Voting is the most important right we are granted as citizens, and you should have to go through the process of becoming a citizen and declaring allegiance to this country before being given that right," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said through a spokeswoman.
No vote has been scheduled on the New York measure, which faces legal as well as political questions.