Politicians pay attention to immigrant voters

Somali refugees are on a direct path to permanent residency.

COLUMBUS (AP) — Politicians are wooing votes from central Ohio’s large Somali and Latino immigrant communities, a move that could influence next year’s presidential election.

In Columbus alone, the Somali community is conservatively estimated at 45,000 and growing. Nearly 8,500 naturalized citizens from Somalia and other African countries have been registered to vote in the Columbus area, and as many as 30,000 will be eligible voters by 2010, said Mahdi Taakilo, president of Helping Africans in a New Direction and the Somali Link newspaper.

Increasingly, politicians are realizing the sway new voters may have, especially from a community that is known for its interest in politics. Somalis “never talk about anything else,” said Hassan Omar, 47, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio.

Fewer eligible voters come from Central Ohio’s Latino population, estimated between 40,000 and 60,000. Unlike Somali refugees, whose status puts them on a direct path to permanent residency, many Latinos are here illegally and lack the necessary documents to apply for citizenship said Joseph Mas, chairman of the Ohio Hispanic Coalition and former head of the Ohio Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs.

Latino immigrants also come from all over Central America — Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — so although Latinos often unite on issues such as immigration and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, politicians cannot count on a bloc vote, he said.

“There’s no one voice,” Mas said.

Politicians are beginning to realize that while immigrants as a group may be concerned about some of the same basic issues such as good jobs for people with limited language skills or access to health care, immigrants may hold different views about everything from charter schools to taxes.

“Immigrant groups are not monolithic blocks. They have competing interests, just like any group in society does,” said Doug Preisse, the Franklin County Republican Party chairman.

Instead, campaigning Republicans plan to appeal to immigrants’ sense of entrepreneurship and hard work, Preisse said.

Democratic party leaders strive to unite immigrant groups by focusing on “kitchen table issues” such as improving schools, health care, and economic issues, said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Randy Borntrager. These issues bring people together because they benefit the community as a whole, he said.

Many immigrants are focused on issues tied to their home countries, said Louis DeSipio, an associate professor at the University of California-Irvine who has studied immigrant voting patterns for 20 years. Cubans, for example, use their votes to influence U.S. policy toward Fidel Castro, while Mexicans may be concerned about the rights of illegal immigrants.

And, priorities may diverge with succeeding generations, DeSipio said. New immigrants may be more concerned with social services than older immigrants who have succeeded in businesses here.

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