Downtown Flushing was awash in sunlight last Thursday, but the temperature was freefalling, and the narrow pedestrian alley where Yangsun Park was standing had become a frigid wind tunnel. Still, the 28-year-old volunteer with the Young Korean American Service and Education Center put on a brave face. With disarming enthusiasm, she explained that the work she was doing—buttonholing fellow immigrants to register them to vote—was “incredibly important.” And after all, the press was out in force—the Korean press, that is. As camera crews took turns shooting Park and a couple of comrades, Jonghun Kim, a reporter for The Korea Central Daily News, conceded that the event seemed small, but the story—the political awakening of the community—is “big. We are constantly running articles now about politics. There’s been a breakthrough.”
Indeed, if a new statewide campaign succeeds, we may all be talking about the political breakthrough of immigrants. The effort, a drive to turn out 200,000 new voters this year, is an ambitious attempt to translate the explosive growth of New York’s newest communities into political power. Nineteen city groups have signed on with The New York Immigration Coalition, from the Alianza Dominicana in Washington Heights to the Russian American Voters Educational League in Brighton Beach. And the push comes in time to capitalize on a term-limit coup: In 2001, 36 of the city’s 51 council members will step down. “There are now enough votes out there for immigrants to transform politics here,” says the NYIC’s Margie McHugh.
Immigration advocates like McHugh have their enemies to thank for that. Years of Republican anti-immigrant wrath culminated in 1996 congressional action that cut off many benefits to immigrants, prompting what one advocate called “widespread panic.” But the laws—along with the prospect of dual citizenship in countries like Colombia—also sparked a boom in naturalization. About 800,000 of New York’s immigrants have become citizens in the 1990s, including more than 100,000 each year since 1996.
“Our opponents,” says McHugh, “did our organizing for us.” The new campaign is just one unintended bounce of backlash, adds Chung-Wha Hong, a board member of Park’s group. “We have really come together to push for a common agenda. There’s more cross-fertilization, and a stronger identity as an immigrant community.”
Still, the obstacles to empowerment remain daunting. While an earlier wave of European immigrants was once organized, and serviced, through a thicket of clubs cultivated by Tammany Hall, the current, fainter version of the Democratic Party has been infamously reluctant, or unable, to embrace the new immigrants. And newcomers have notoriously not voted. According to John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY’s Center for Urban Research, some evidence from the 1996 elections suggests that diffidence might be lessening: Black and Latino immigrants were 10 percent more likely than native-born counterparts to vote. And Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund exit polls found large numbers of first-time (and overwhelmingly Democratic) Asian voters. Overall, however, foreign-born New Yorkers voted at a rate 10 percent below native-born whites.
Of course, as Mollenkopf adds, “Groups get involved when the system gives them something to get excited about,” and the system, says Angelo Falcón of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, “has not given immigrants a hell of a lot.”
The political woes of Asian Americans in Flushing illustrate some difficulties even where newcomers have champions. In 1996, Councilmember Julia Harrison touched off a political firestorm when she likened Asians in Flushing to “colonizers.” The remarks capped years of ugly outbursts by the 76-year-old Harrison, and provoked a City Hall demo, denunciations from top Queens pols like Assemblymember Brian McLaughlin, and primary campaigns by two Asian Democrats.
Then realpolitik intruded: Though they’d grown to nearly half the population of Flushing, Asians were only 14 percent of area voters. By election day in 1997, the party brass had re-embraced Harrison, and she won. At the time, much was made of the inability of Asians to unite behind a challenger, but John Liu, the 32-year-old Taiwanese American who came in second, argues that “when you split such a small percentage, it’s negligible. Most of my votes came from non-Asians anyway.”
Multifariously fractious ethnic politics within the city’s racial worlds, as well as race lines themselves, present immigrant insurgents with the imperative to build coalitions. And some advocates say the deck has been stacked against them. “Immigrants were taken advantage of in the last redistricting,” says McHugh, referring to the expansion of the council to 51 seats in 1991. Dominicans did win a district in Washington Heights, after Puerto Rican politicians joined the fight for it. But in District 1, designed to house the city’s first Asian American councilmember, a bitter battle ensued over which neighborhood would be linked to Chinatown. To the chagrin of progressive Asian and Latino activists, Chinatown was soldered to affluent, white Tribeca, rather than to the heavily immigrant Lower East Side. Kathryn Freed was elected.
Here, however, the story gets a bit thornier. Leland Saito, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the District 1 fight, points out that the district took its shape largely because of lobbying by Chinatown-based Asian Americans for Equality. “Their plan went against the history of whites’ being disinclined to vote for Asians, against the history of the system that whites created to disempower nonwhites.”
Given these kinds of self-imposed divisions, can one even speak of an immigrant agenda? Falcón says that “as newcomers get hit with police brutality, language discrimination, and so on, they move to a minority-group agenda. Look at Mexicans selling flowers on the street. It’s Giuliani’s police that are harassing them. Meanwhile, you have Mexicans belying stereotypes by organizing for unions.”
Indeed, McHugh says that, increasingly, immigrants define their issues as “affordable housing, decent schools, health care”—in other words, “a working-class agenda.” Even Sung Soo Kim, who founded the Small Business Congress, says that the city’s economic boom has left many immigrant businesses behind, leading to a change in consciousness. “We project that under Giuliani, almost twice the number of our businesses will shut down as under Dinkins. And now everyone dances to the same song: quality of life. The fines, the revoked licenses—it has all led to coalitions of minorities, because we experience the same deprivations.”
Still, it should be noted that Mexican immigrants’ recent hard-fought union contracts were wrested from Korean-owned groceries. And just last week, workers won a back-wage settlement from Flushing’s East River restaurant. They had fought for 9 years—with Julia Harrison’s support—against restaurant owners who included some pillars of the Chinese American community.
The immigrant agenda, clearly, is still up for grabs. AALDEF’s Margaret Fung suggests that the most important political quandary facing immigrants is the question of “what immigrant leaders will put forward, not only that they move forward.”