September 22, 2000

Immigrant groups hope to find their hard-earned clout has a silver lining

By Alfredo Corchado
The Dallas Morning News
September 18, 2000

WASHINGTON — For years they've been known as workers in the shadows, too afraid to step out for fear of facing deportation. This time around, the shadows are behind them.

As Congress ponders modifying the nation's immigration laws to provide thousands of new visas to skilled and unskilled workers, some of the most vocal activists in the debate haven't been the usual high-powered lobbyists but the immigrants themselves, both legal and illegal.

Led by Mexican immigrants and hundreds of associations named after their hometowns, the political evolution of the immigrant speaks volumes to the power of numbers and a booming economy. The independent associations represent several million immigrants from across the United States, people who funnel an estimated $7 billion to their hometowns in Mexico each year for civic projects and who for the first time ever are coming together to influence U.S. policy.

"These efforts today are completely different from the past because they're coming from the grassroots level, often at a time when official Washington is not even ready to talk about these issues," said Cecilia Munoz, a veteran lobbyist for immigration reform and vice president of National Council of La Raza, one of the nation's largest and most influential Hispanic groups. "What they're doing is telling their story. That's as powerful as it gets."

Buoyed in part by democratic changes in their own homeland following the historic July 2 presidential election, these immigrants are now more politically and media savvy with their political influence stretching to both sides of the border.

Case in point of their new-found political strength is the H1B-plus legislation facing Congress. In an intense campaign year, the bill has turned into a passionate debate mired in a political blame game. The question centers on whether the United States should increase the number of temporary visas for foreign skilled workers without extending the same olive branch to undocumented workers, many of them Mexican and Central Americans.

Under the original H1B bill, the number of visas for high-skilled workers, many of them from India, would increase from 65,000 to about 200,000.

Pro-immigrant groups, including La Raza and the National Immigration Forum, also are pushing for an amendment, attached to the original bill, that would provide green cards to an estimated 1 million immigrants, the majority of them from Mexico, a country that already accounts for nearly one-third of all immigrants to the United States.

While Republicans and many Democrats generally agree on increasing temporary high-tech visas, they differ on visas for the low-skilled workers, even as the White House, unions, leading Hispanic groups and 31 businesses and trade associations insist these workers are much needed to help fill labor shortages.

Republicans, led by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and the House immigration subcommittee chairman, question whether there's even a worker shortage and say immigration levels already are too high. Most recently, the Republicans introduced an element calling for a farmworker amendment to the bill, an issue that ignited an outcry from Hispanic groups because it doesn't protect workers from alleged abuses.

The legislation has turned into a contentious issue with electoral consequences for both presidential candidates, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, some Hispanics warn. More than 31 million Hispanics live in the United States, an increase of 7.9 million - or 35 percent - in just eight years, according to the U.S. census.

Moreover, nearly half the Hispanic population in the United States is foreign-born. More than 6 million of the 18 million voting-age Hispanics are registered voters. Most of them - in fact, most Hispanics of all ages - live in California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.

Together, those states account for 166 electoral votes.

"If Governor Bush and other Republicans want the new American and Latino vote, as they say they do, they need to support concrete immigration proposals like H1B-plus," said Rick Swartz, a veteran lobbyist who - along with such key players as Henry Cisneros and Jack Kemp - has been the legislation's chief architect and strategist.

With only weeks before Congress ends its session, the legislation faces an uphill battle, though groups said they will try again next year if it doesn't pass.

Still, the role of the immigrant has given the bill, if not a new political momentum, then certainly a new face of persistence.

Consider Joel Magallan, leader of the National Coalition For Dignity and Amnesty. Last year, Magallan, who runs Tepeyac Association out of New York City, led 15,000 immigrants to the nation's capital, where they took their message of amnesty to local immigrant neighborhoods and later to the Washington Monument. The vast majority of the association members and its supporters that day, Magallan conceded, work in the United States illegally, natives not just of Mexico, but of countries in the Far East, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

"We all have a voice, regardless of our status," said Magallan, who's planning another trip to Washington for a rally on Capitol Hill. "And if we don't get what we want from Congress this year, we'll keep pushing for change."

When Magallan isn't lobbying for amnesty, he and his countrymen are sending billions of dollars earmarked for civic improvements and relatives back home. Or they're clamoring for voting rights inside the Mexican Congress and calling for an end to government corruption along the Mexican border.

Recently, when Mexico's president-elect Vicente Fox showed up in New York City's East Harlem and chowed down tacos alongside his compatriots, throngs of elated Mexicans took turns chanting, "Amnesty, amnesty, amnesty" and "We want to vote in Mexico."

"What we're witnessing here is a tremendous turnaround, something that should have been happening for the last 40 years," said Raul Hinojosa, as he watched the hundreds of immigrants outside the tiny restaurant in East Harlem.

"The voices of these people will help influence policy on both sides of the border for generations to come," said Hinojosa, the director of the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA.

Some of the key players are U.S. citizens and successful business owners, who directly benefited from the 1986 general amnesty, which granted legal status to more than 3 million immigrants.

"We've come of age, politically and emotionally," explained Carlos Olamendi, a prominent restaurant owner in Los Angeles and a founder of the International Coalition of Mexicans Abroad, or CIME, a group that earlier in the year lobbied Rep. Henry Hyde, the Illinois Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, for immigration reform.

For decades, these immigrants and their associations, or clubs, typically raised money for projects in Mexico through dances and raffles. Many organized annual beauty pageants, and hosted bands and dancers from home.

Recently, however, the clubs have become increasingly focused on helping immigrants here, providing scholarships to children of immigrants, and holding citizenship classes and voter registration drives.

In small and big ways, the fact that these people are participating in the American political system shows that the timeless cycle of immigration remains unscathed as these newcomers increasingly buy into the American ideal, some analysts say. But unlike Italian or Irish immigrants before them, their geographic proximity to their Mexican homeland is a constant reminder that their fight for justice knows no borders.

The flexing of their muscle in the United States comes at a time when the birth of a fledgling civil society in Mexico is taking root. For many Mexicans on both sides of the border, the culmination of that civil rights experiment took place July 2 when the voters in Mexico ended 71 years of a one party rule.

Take the case of Miguel Arajous, a Mexican political activist in San Bruno, Calif. He led a push among immigrants in California to drive to the Mexican border to vote on July 2. The newfound political spirit has taken over his home.

"My wife and my children are United States citizens. They saw what I, a Mexican citizen, was doing to be involved in my home country, so now, for the first time, they've registered to vote, and will participate in Latino voter registration campaigns for the November elections."

The movement among Mexican immigrants in the San Francisco Bay Area has been so strong that Arajous and his organization has spun off a new voter-registration drive.

Orlando Mujica, a restaurant worker in Charleston, W. Va., felt equally inspired by the events in his homeland. A native of Jalisco, Mexico, and resident of the West Virginia area for nearly a decade, 44-year-old Mujica said he felt a lump in his throat as he watched the news on television.

"I thought, `This is amazing. My countrymen were able to do this without firing a gun,'" he said. "I thought we also need to fight on this side of the border for our own children's future, become more active in society, feel more comfortable in our new home."

This story was provided by the Center for Immigration Studies 1522 K Street NW, Suite 820, Washington, DC 20005.

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