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Immigration Is Topic A for Foreign-Born Voters

Times Staff Writer

As the Democratic primary season moves to California, many among the state’s large number of foreign-born voters are hoping to hear greater discussion of immigration issues. So far, such topics have gotten scant attention in the campaign.

The two leading Democratic candidates, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, agree on many immigration issues that would overturn policies adopted over the last several years. Both disagree sharply with President’s Bush recent proposal to create a temporary guest-worker program for immigrant workers.

In California, where the latest census figures put Latinos at 32% of the population and Asians at 11%, and where 44% of Latinos are foreign born, immigration is a pertinent issue, both practically and symbolically.

Leaders of ethnic advocacy groups say a candidate’s stand on immigration policy determines one simple factor: whether a candidate is for immigrants or against them.

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“Immigration is for Latinos similar to what civil rights is for African Americans,” said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who specializes in opinion research among Latinos.

But minority groups comprise a smaller portion of the state’s electorate than its overall population, and candidates generally shy away from trumpeting policies perceived as pro-immigrant that could create a backlash.

“We haven’t seen immigration raised as a distinguishing issue,” said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Most attention in recent weeks has focused on Bush’s guest-worker plan.

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The initiative would allow illegal immigrants already working in the United States to become guest workers and remain legally in the country for three years. The workers could eventually compete with would-be immigrants outside the country for a limited number of permanent legal residency slots. An unsuccessful applicant could be deported after the three-year guest worker visa expired.

Edwards has criticized the proposal for failing to provide a clear path to permanent residence and naturalization. He charges that millions of immigrants would be thrust into “a second-class status with no real promise of citizenship.”

Kerry has argued that the policy “rewards business over immigrants by providing them with a permanent pool of disenfranchised temporary workers who could easily be exploited by employers.”

But some ethnic community advocates have praised Bush for propelling the immigration issue to the fore and for introducing concrete steps toward giving illegal immigrants the chance to become legal residents.

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They also maintain that both immigrant and American-born Latinos have become more politically savvy and that Democrats can no longer take their support for granted.

“As a Latino constituent, I am no longer a 12-year-old kid,” said Robert de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a Washington-based policy group. “I’m not going to take your word and follow you blindly.”

Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic race, supports efforts to restore welfare and healthcare benefits to legal immigrants. He says he would repeal a law that prevents students who are in the country illegally from obtaining federal financial aid to go to college; and he believes illegal immigrants should have the opportunity to gain legal status if they have been in the country for a certain length of time and can pass a background check.

Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is of Portuguese descent and was raised in Mozambique.

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“Being married to an immigrant certainly has strengthened the beliefs he already has of the rights of immigrants in the makeup of this country,” said Laura Capps, communications director for Kerry’s campaign in California. “Seeing America through her eyes has strengthened his conviction of how immigrants should be treated.”

Like Kerry, Edwards supports measures to allow those who are here illegally to work their way into citizenship.

If elected, he has said, he would increase money for programs that help low-income students prepare for college and address healthcare disparities between immigrants and U.S. citizens by establishing a national 24-hour medical translation hotline for rural and small hospitals.

He also promises to expedite the reunification of immigrant families, delayed by backlogs at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

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“Immigration is important” to Edwards, said Robert Gordon, a senior aide on the senator’s election campaign team. “He views the immigrant dream as the American dream, and he believes immigrants have contributed immeasurably to America.”

In the rural town of Robbins, N.C., where he grew up, 50% of the families now are Latino, Edwards says, adding that they “believe in the same American dream as my family did -- if you work hard, you sacrifice for your family, and your children’s lives will be better.”

Asian community leaders said immigration policy also remained a vital issue for them because at least half of California’s Asian population is foreign-born.

“When we do voter outreach in the community, a common concern that surfaces is the complicated immigration process,” said Sandra Chen, executive director of the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment in Pasadena.

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“The long period of waiting and not knowing the outcome of one’s status becomes frustrating as well as intimidating,” she said.

Racial profiling and bias in the workplace are also concerns, community leaders said.

“There are so many Asian immigrants here, but you still find people who look at us differently,” said Alfred Foung, founding president of The 80-20 Initiative, a political organization based in Los Angeles that advocates for Asian Americans.

“They try to mimic Chinese. They also tell you to go back home. And the glass ceiling exists. It is still very difficult [for Asians] to move up in a major corporation,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Kerry and Edwards on immigration

Democratic presidential candidates John F. Kerry and John Edwards face an electorate in Tuesday’s California primary for whom immigration is a practical and symbolic issue. But the topic is also controversial and could create a backlash.

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Issue: President Bush’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants already working in the United States to become temporary guest workers.

Kerry: Argues that the policy rewards business over immigrants by providing them with a permanent pool of disenfranchised temporary workers who could easily be exploited by employers.

Edwards: Criticizes the proposal for failing to provide a clear path to permanent residence and naturalization and charges that millions of immigrants would be thrust into second-class status with no real promise of citizenship.

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Issue: Offer an opportunity to earn legal status and citizenship to those who work hard, pay their taxes and play by the rules.

Kerry: Supports

Edwards: Supports

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Issue: Allow undocumented students, who have spent their formative years in the U.S., greater access to college by allowing them to pay instate tuition fees and giving them immigration relief.

Kerry: Supports

Edwards: Supports

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Issue: Restore benefits to legal immigrants, who were stripped of privileges such as Supplemental Security Income under the 1996 welfare reform law.

Kerry: Supports

Edwards: Supports

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Issue: Reunite immigrant families and allow immigrants who are eligible for permanent residency to be processed in the U.S. rather than in their home country.

Kerry: Supports

Edwards: Supports

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Source: L.A. Times research

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Delegate count

Here is the breakdown of presidential preferences of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It includes choices by “super delegates,” those not picked through primaries or caucuses and who can change their minds.

Needed to nominate: 2,162

Candidate: Delegates

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John F. Kerry: 676

John Edwards: 199

Howard Dean: 184

Al Sharpton: 16

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Dennis J. Kucinich: 8

Source: Associated Press

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Tuesday primary and caucus results

Hawaii (c)

John F. Kerry 50%

Dennis J. Kucinich 26%

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John Edwards 14%

Howard Dean 9%

Al Sharpton 0%

99% reporting

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Idaho (c)

Kerry 55%

Edwards 22%

Dean 11%

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Kucinich 5%

Sharpton 0%

100% reporting

Utah (p)

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Kerry 55%

Edwards 30%

Kucinich 7%

Dean 4%

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Sharpton 0%

100% reporting

Figures do not total 100% because fringe candidates and some of those who left the race are not listed.

(c) indicates caucus. (p) indicates primary.

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Sources: Associated Press, state Democratic Party websites


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