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September 28, 2012

California Immigrants Become Politically Active

by Mike O'Sullivan

American cities attract immigrants from around the world, and they bring changes to their new neighborhoods. Newcomers from Asia and Latin America have brought an international flavor to the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, where they now make up most of the population, and some residents have been prompted to become politically active.
 
City officials in Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley were trying to close a poultry store.  It sells freshly slaughtered chickens and other birds, with their heads and feet on, the way that many Asian immigrants like them. Some neighbors and local officials thought the shop had a foul smell.
 
But Dana Phu, who owns the shop with her husband, said this is part of Chinese culture, along with incense sticks and ceremonial paper used for funeral offerings, which they also sell. Phu is ethnically Chinese and comes from Vietnam.
 
“It's a lot of Asians - and our business, our services - are servicing those people.”
 
She mobilized friends and supporters and filed a lawsuit against the city council. They reached a settlement and are now in talks to work out the problems.
 
Immigrants came to this part of California for the business opportunities, good schools and affordable housing. Some moved from the crowded Los Angeles neighborhood, Chinatown, wanting a better life in the suburbs.
 
Lily Chen is a former mayor of Monterey Park, an early destination for Asians in the San Gabriel Valley. Its population now is more than two-thirds Asian-American. In 1984, she became the first Chinese American to lead an American city. She noted the surge of Asian immigrants that began in the 1980s.
 
“From Hong Kong, from Taiwan, later some of them from Vietnam. And now of course we have more Chinese population moving from China,” said Chen.
 
 
Los Angeles also is a magnet for Latin American immigrants, and many have also settled in this valley, making up about a quarter of the population. The San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771 by Spanish missionaries, draws Hispanic worshippers on Sundays.
 
Political parties are working to enlist these residents as voters. State Senator Ed Hernandez, a Mexican-American, represents many Latino and Asian American constituents.
 
“We need to empower everybody. All the citizens of this country and the state have to realize the importance of their vote,” he said.
 
Hernandez said he became involved in politics to have a voice in his community.
 
So did Judy Chu, another former mayor of Monterey Park who is now the first Chinese-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. She said immigrants face obstacles to full participation.
 
“There are so many immigrants that have language barriers or who simply are not informed about what's going on and what resources there are for them to succeed,” said Chu.
 
She said that's why she reaches out to voters.
 
Asian-American activist William Su said immigrants need to make their voices heard.
 
“You have to have representatives, you have to be involved with the political system in order for the government to understand your needs,” said Su.
 
He said politics is a give-and-take process and, as immigrants learn to get along with other ethnic groups, they are gaining a voice in their new communities.