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Voters pursued in ethnic enclaves

Activists see power on immigrant laws

September 13, 2004

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune


By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter

  From Indian women on Devon Avenue to Mexican-American students in Pilsen, political veterans and first-time activists are launching the most ambitious get-out-the-vote blitz ever by Illinois immigrant advocates.
  Organizers plan to send out about 1,500 volunteers, akin to precinct captains, to mobilize 50,000 Chicago-area voters who have identified immigration reform as a key issue.
  The non-partisan New Americans Vote initiative hopes to convince politicians that there are votes to be won by supporting loosened immigration laws, even though a sluggish economy and terrorism concerns have made that a tough sell.
  Organizers said the first step is motivating naturalized citizens who might be voting in their first elections.
  "Part of our mission is making this issue real," said John Kohlhepp, an Illinois campaign veteran hired by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to run the project.
  "As soon as you can connect the policy debate to something they care about, we believe people will vote."
  Organizers are employing sophisticated tactics common to political machines, including a combination of voter rolls and census data that will help identify precincts with large ethnic populations.
  Project officials also will use computer programs that can take voter rolls and pick out names that are likely of Hispanic, Korean, Arab and Chinese derivation.
  Volunteers will spread the message by phone or in person on Election Day--in at least a dozen languages--to encourage prospective voters to get to the polls.
  Because immigrants have such varying backgrounds, the campaign will tailor sales pitches to each group.
  Hispanic immigrants, who represent most undocumented immigrants, will hear about the need for a legalization plan.
  Arab-Americans will will be told about the need to protect civil rights in the fight against terrorism. Asian-Americans will hear about ways to end the lengthy backlogs for legal immigrants so they can bring relatives into the country.
  In the 50th Ward, volunteers recently studied maps of precincts over samosas and mango shakes at a restaurant on Devon Avenue.
  Lakshmi Renjarajan and Mohammadbhai Sheikh illustrate the technique of teaming up ethnic community leaders and first-generation Americans savvy in politics.
  The daughter of Indian immigrants, Renjarajan, 28, grew up in the suburbs and has little connection to the East Indian enclave of Devon Avenue.
  But the freelance journalist is skilled in U.S. politics and is a veteran of a progressive group focusing on Asian-American issues.
  By contrast, Sheikh is still learning about America in his citizenship class at the Indo-American Center. But the 72-year-old Indian immigrant knows these streets and their people, alternating his words among Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu and English.
  On this night of door-knocking, the two came up empty: no voters registered and only a handful of signatures of support.
  Renjarajan remained hopeful. "This work is important. There is a feeling that something has to change with the immigration system," he said.
  Dale Asis, executive director of the Coalition of African, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois, said immigrants have traditionally been the foot soldiers, not the leaders, in organized political movements.
  His coalition, based in the Ravenswood neighborhood, started the "After Citizenship" project this month that offers a 12-week course in Centro Romero in Edgewater about complex political skills.
  Asis said his group wants to avoid the "fill the bus" model, "where we pack in people behind the speaker at the press conference. Sometimes it feels like immigrants are just used as props."
  With sharp divisions over the Patriot Act and proposals to legalize undocumented immigrants, both parties are making immigration a campaign issue.
  The liberal advocacy group, Center for Community Change, is organizing the New Americans Vote project in Illinois and other states.
  Officials with the Washington-based group said the Illinois project, which includes a leadership institute for community activists, is the most ambitious. Illinois organizers have already registered about 17,000 voters this year.
  On the other side of the issue, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has founded a political action committee, Team America, to support candidates who want stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
  The immigrant voting bloc continues to grow. According to census data, the number of naturalized citizens in Illinois 18 and older increased 43 percent between 1990 and 2000, to about 580,000.
  In the 15 targeted neighborhoods and suburbs, organizers will complement national debates with local flashpoints, from affordable housing in Uptown to a backlash over a proposed Orland Park mosque.
  "People are beginning to open their eyes," said Carlos Sanchez, who is working with Casa Mexiquense to mobilize naturalized citizens in Waukegan.




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