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US Parties Compete to Attract Immigrant Voters - 2004-03-02


Once the U.S. presidential primary season winds down, both parties will turn their attention to the general election in November, when a Democratic candidate will face President Bush, a Republican.

California, with 35 million people, is the most populous U.S. state. It is one-third Hispanic and more than 10 percent Asian-American. Combined with other minority groups, they form a majority.

One-quarter of Californians are first-generation immigrants, and many become naturalized U.S. citizens. After meeting residence requirements, they go through an interview, answering questions about U.S. government and history, then take part in a naturalization ceremony.

At a recent ceremony at the Los Angeles county fairgrounds, 3,000 immigrants were sworn in as citizens.

Newly naturalized citizen Mona Boutros comes from Egypt and has been in the United States for seven years.

Ms. Boutros asked for a voter registration form at the ceremony, but said she hasn't yet decided which party or candidates to support.

"Almost, but I'm just reviewing all the issues that are going around, and I don't want to make the decision until I'm fully, completely convinced that this is what I want to register to vote for," she said.

Outside, members of political parties worked to recruit new voters.

"Welcome to register with the Republican Party," said a recruiter.

A Chinese-American man, speaking English and Mandarin, urges people to register Republican. Volunteers explain that Republicans believe in keeping taxes low and government small and efficient.

Nearby, a Spanish-speaking volunteer helps those who want to register as Democrats.

New voters can register with a party affiliation, or declare themselves independent voters. Whatever they choose, they are free to vote for any candidate or party in the general election.

Some, like Mona Boutros, are weighing the issues: the economy, taxes, and terrorism, for example. Mexican-born Manuel Irigoyen has already decided. He is registering as a Democrat.

"Because I want to vote against Bush," he explained. "Yes. No more wars."

Blanca Figueroa, the mayor of the small industrial city of South El Monte in eastern Los Angeles county, is a Democrat but holds a nonpartisan office. A Mexican American, she was born and raised in this town of 20,000, whose population is mostly Hispanic, with minorities of Chinese and Vietnamese Americans. She says the concerns of her residents are mostly economic.

"We have a lot of jobs that are leaving California, going to Canada, to Mexico, and we need those jobs," she said. "We need those tax dollars. I need that for my social services in my city. I need that for our Sheriff's department and to get protection we need in our city."

Local businessman John Lawrence manufactures equipment that makes tortillas, pita, and other types of flat bread for the ethnic market and for export. He employs more than 200 workers.

He says politicians sometimes visit his plant, and they get a lot of comments from the workers.

"They do come by," he said. "You know, we're vocal. And I'd like them to do something about immigration."

Mr. Lawrence draws on a labor pool of immigrants, and nearly all of his employees are Hispanic. He would like to see provisions for illegal immigrants who working in the country to have access to citizenship. He says the temporary worker program that President Bush is proposing doesn't go far enough, and he doesn't think the Democrats are addressing the issue either.

Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democratic council member in Los Angeles and the former speaker of the California assembly, says the concerns of immigrants are setting the agenda in cities like Los Angeles. He said both parties are wise to target potential ethnic voters, particularly Hispanics.

"We're the fastest growing demographic group in the nation," said Mr. Villaraigosa. "We're also that group that's very much moving toward citizenship and voting."

He said the Hispanic vote is important in battleground states like Florida, which swung the election in favor of President Bush four years ago.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, the state's top election official, says participation rates in elections are declining. About half of the voting-age population in the United States typically does not vote in a presidential election.

"I think it's a challenge, not only for myself as California's chief election office, but for all secretaries of state throughout the country to redouble our efforts to get people excited about the process, whether it be to improve technology, to provide reasons to get people to register," he said. "It's of crucial importance."

The major political parties are trying to get that message out.

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