Work Begins Before Citizenship : Parties Building Strength Among Immigrants

Times Staff Writer

To political organizer Nativo Lopez, thousands of Orange County Latinos now eligible for amnesty under the new immigration law represent an entire future generation of voters.

“You don’t have to be a citizen to walk precincts,” said Lopez, executive director for Santa Ana-based Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrants-rights group. “Eventually they will become citizens and just as importantly, so will their children.”

Lopez, a staunch Democrat who is helping to organize the county’s Lations for the Dukakis campaign, said the Hermandad group and others have been quietly holding “transition” courses--after-work classes intended to help Spanish-speaking undocumented workers apply for permanent residency. On Saturday last month, for instance, nearly 1,000 hopefuls received certificates for completing such courses during a ceremony that was heavily attended by Orange County’s Democratic candidates.

Indeed, the war over the ethnic vote is being waged in Orange County as never before. The fact that there are 100,000 new citizens annually in California is not lost on organizers from both major parties, who are pushing to increase the ranks of voters by registering Latinos, Vietnamese, Koreans, Laotians and Filipinos.


Not to be outdone, Latino Republicans, fired up by the recent visit to the county of presidential candidate George Bush--an event organized in part by Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez--have scheduled meetings this month as part of an educational outreach program for Latinos who have gained amnesty.

“Our goal,” said Dennis Catron of the GOP’s local ethnic outreach committee, “is to help Latinos and Southeast Asians gain citizenship. We’re looking at a sequence procedure to have them gain citizenship as part of a five- to seven-year process.”

While Latinos and Southeast Asians make up only 23% of the countywide population, they have begun to make up as much as 40% or more of the vote and higher in certain precincts in Santa Ana, Westminster, Stanton, west Anaheim and Garden Grove.

And their ranks are growing.


“My district is the most varied in Orange County if not the whole of America,” said Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove). “It is made up of one-fifth Hispanics, it has the largest Vietnamese community in the world outside of Vietnam, the second-largest Laotian community in the nation, the largest number of Korean-Americans in Orange County. When blacks move to Orange County, they come to my district.”

Both Dornan and his Democratic challenger in the 38th Congressional District, Jerry Yudelson, agree that the congressional district is a microcosm of America’s melting pot.

“I have decided to focus primarily on the Latino community because of its size, but I haven’t forgotten the Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese,” Yudelson said, adding that he was the only candidate to print some brochures in Korean. “You can go too far into the ethnic part of politics, but I love the diversity of America which is represented by this district.”

Registering Republican

Catron said Republicans hope to work the different ethnic communities into the mainstream of the political process. It’s part of a “long-range program” to help and educate new citizens with the political system and bring them into the Republican fold, Catron said.

Vietnamese immigrants, for instance, tend to register Republican because they identify President Reagan with strong anti-Communist views. Democratic Party officials conceded that the GOP has done an excellent job of recruiting the Vietnamese on this basis.

“Fully one half of the new citizens in Orange County last year were Vietnamese,” Catron said, adding that within the last four years, Republican outreach efforts have helped thousands of Vietnamese become citizens, have built voter registration and helped establish an Asian American Republican headquarters in Little Saigon in Westminster.

“We go down to the naturalization ceremony, and when they come out after being sworn in, we have 15 tables to the Democrats’ two,” Catron said. “But the most important thing is that we work together year-round on Vietnamese problems.”


Catron, quoting Republican figures, said that of the 48,500 newly sworn citizens in Southern California this year, the majority were Latinos, with 13,319; Vietnamese, 7,767, and Korean, 3,540.

In recent years, Republican clubs have been established not only for Vietnamese but also for Koreans and most recently, for Hmong-Americans, who are from Laos. Orange County has about 120,000 Vietnamese, 80,000 Koreans, and about 6,000 Hmong.

Hmong Community Rally

In fact, last weekend, Hmong-American Republican Club members helped organize a Fresno rally for the Hmong community there for George Bush, Dan Quayle and U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, Catron said.

Recruiting ethnic votes is a “two-way” program that also benefits elected officials, Catron said. Legislators learn about the needs of the different ethnic communities in Orange County by listening to community leaders and their organizations, he said. In addition, politicians representing racially mixed districts like Dornan’s have hired minority staff members.

Yudelson has pledged to hire a staff with bilingual abilities.

One example of that success is Ky Ngo. Ngo came to the United States two days before Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975. He won notice as a volunteer for the Vietnamese-American Friendship Foundation by helping with immigration problems and seeking to improve relations between Americans and the Vietnamese community.

In 1982, Ngo helped organize a Republican voter registration drive in the Vietnamese community. In 1984 and again in 1986, he volunteered for both of Dornan’s congressional campaigns. Now, Ngo directs the Asian American Republican Headquarters. In August, he became Orange County’s first Vietnamese-American delegate to the Republican National Convention.


Last Saturday, Ngo was the host of a political rally for Wilson, who is seeking to retain his seat against challenger Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy.

In Orange County, Republicans have the edge in voting strength. Republicans had 612,557 registered voters to the Democrats’ 394,303 as of Monday, according to the county registrar’s office.

Strengthening Their Ranks

Democrats, hoping to strengthen their ranks, plan to open the first Southeast Asian Democratic Party office on Monday near Westminster’s Little Saigon at 14168 Brookhurst St., said John Hanna, county Democratic Party chairman. Kitty Dukakis, wife of Democratic presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis, is expected to briefly tour Little Saigon on Tuesday and visit the office, Hanna said.

Latino Democrats concede they have yet to fully tap the county’s 83,936--or 7.8%--of the registered voters who are Latino, said Rene L. Lopez, an Anaheim businessman with United Latino Democrats.

To help make up the difference, such Latino Democrats as Rita Montes, a representative of the Service Employees International Union, said the Democrats have “sweat equity” working for them this year.

“We’ll just work harder,” Montes said.

Two weeks ago, both parties kicked off Latino campaigns by opening offices in Orange County. Republicans are hoping for Latino crossover voters, while Democrats have targeted 150 heavily Latino “swing” precincts in Santa Ana, Stanton, west Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster.

Both parties hope to step up voter registration by Oct. 11, the last day to register in time to vote in the Nov. 8, election. Get-out-the-vote campaigns will emerge after the October deadline, said spokesmen for both parties.

Despite having a greater population than Vietnamese Republicans, Latino Democrats in Orange County have not managed to establish their own office. Rene Lopez, who is no relation to Nativo Lopez, said two Latinos will work out of the central Democratic Party office in Santa Ana.

This year, Latinos are hoping to mature politically by having a strong showing in voter registration. Lopez and other Democrats said it’s part of an overall Democratic push to elect Yudelson and Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach, who is running against Republican Curt Pringle for the 72nd Assembly District seat of the late Richard E. Longshore.

Lopez has spent weekends walking precincts in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods with Yudelson, who, like his opponent Dornan, has recognized the importance of ethnic clout.

“We’re making plans now to organize the first Latino political group that will function as a concilio, an umbrella group in Orange County,” Lopez said. “We want to have more say in our own political destiny and have the politicians come to us. We know what we have to do, we just have to do it.”