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Immigrants In City Heights And Across The U.S. Struggle To Be Heard

October 9, 2012 12:50 p.m.


Maria Hinojosa, correspondent PBS Need to Know, America By The Numbers: Clarkston Georgia

Norma Sandoval, a San Diego Organizing Project volunteer who grew up in City Heights.

Robert Montgomery, regional resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee In San Diego.

Related Story: Immigrants In City Heights And Across The U.S. Struggle To Be Heard


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Both sides in the presidential race say getting out the vote will be a crucial factor in determining who wins this November. But getting out the vote can mean more than determining the winning candidate. In immigrant and underserved communities, improving voter participation can make the difference between getting resources from government or seeing crucial infrastructure and civic needs go unmet. Activists in City Heights are working to sign up voters to get that community's voice heard in city politics. And the efforts are mirrored in immigrant communities across the nation. A new documentary, America by the Numbers, focuses on the struggle to be heard. Joining me is Maria Hinajosa, executive producer and anchor of America by the numbers and PBS's need to know and Latino U.S.A. it's so good to see you. And thank you for coming in. Norma Sandoval, and Robert Montgomery, welcome to the program.

MONTGOMERY: Thank you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Maria, if you could, tell us about the changes the small town of Clarkston Georgia has gone through.

HINAJOSA: I like to use a phrase that is kind of interesting, Clarkston Georgia, the American south is experiencing the future of America on steroids. And in terms of San Diego, I think very similar demographics. Clarkston Georgia is a refugee relocation spot. So in the span of just over 25 years, went from being 90% white American-born to being less than a third. Meanwhile we have 40 countries with 60 different languages. In San Diego, it's the reverse. 60 countries with 40 different languages. And this is happening in the heart of the American south. So we went in to look at what happens with a community like this in terms of deal with hyperdiversity issues in an election year. And there are many beautiful human stories that people can watch on the documentary, America by the numbers, but part of what also is the conversation is how do we get these people, these new voters engaged? Clearly, if they're registering to become voters, it's because they want to be engaged. And in some places across the country, the voter participation rate of immigrants or refugees is quite high. But you want to instill in them that this is the core of being an American, the possibility of voting. And that needs to be passed down to their children.


HINAJOSA: This is all the future of democracy. And if you think of the demographics, you want these people to understand the power of the vote.

CAVANAUGH: If that town sounds familiar, it was also the subject of a one book one San Diego selection called outcasts united by Warren St. John. And we talked about that on this program just a little over a year ago. So a lot of connection between what's happening in this incredibly diverse city of Clarkston and what's happening in San Diego. Bob Montgomery, talk a little bit about how San Diego has become a hub for new immigrant populations.

MONTGOMERY: Well, since 1975, San Diego has been a prime destination for refugees. And in recent years, the arrivals have mostly come from places like Iraq. They've resettled in the El Cajon area, east county, and they have had similar impacts as we talk about Clarkston, Georgia. They are having a positive impact on the community, starting businesses, and things of that nature. But also we are looking at that group as a group that will be participating in government through becoming U.S. citizens, certainly a goal that we have for resettling refugees, and hopefully being civically engaged through voting and advocating for their own rights in the community and making El Cajon a place that is welcoming for immigrants and Native Americans alike.

CAVANAUGH: And there's also the huge resettlement of people from Somalia.

MONTGOMERY: Yes, and that has affected the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego. We have had a lot of refugees that have come to City Heights over the years. And in recent year, it's been a lot from east Africa. And we have the same goals for them. We want them to become engaged civically in their neighborhoods and communities, and we want them to become U.S. citizens, and we have programs here at IRC, and other resettlement agencies, to assist them in that endeavor, as well as getting them engaged and out to vote:

CAVANAUGH: Now, you talk about a new mainstream.

HINAJOSA: It's what -- I like to say we're all living organically which is by the numbers, so something inorganic, shows that what's happening in our country is not slowing. Births by nonwhite children have outpassed those of white. So the new mainstream is essentially the diversity of America as it is lived. And sometimes -- one of the things we deal with in the documentary head-on is the issue of fear. I was born in Mexico, raised on the south side of Chicago, lived in New York and Harlem. I have always been kind of the harbinger of change in so many places. And yet change is happening everywhere. When I was living in San Diego in 1986, it wasn't like it is now. There's a boom. There's this new reality of San Diego, which frankly, San Diego was kind of sleepy in 1986.


HINAJOSA: And it's not that anymore.

CAVANAUGH: We woke up, huh?

HINAJOSA: Right! So it is an understanding that change is here. It's not what's coming. It's here. It is the mainstream. It's not the unique kind of minority thing. It is part and parcel of who we are now. And it just means that you kind of have to open your eyes and look at the world through a different perspective and not be afraid about talking about the fear or discomfort that may come with.

CAVANAUGH: I want to talk about the other half of what America by the numbers explores, and that is the political engagement of these people who are new to the United States of America. We see them in class learning to become citizens, we see them participating in City Council meetings in Clarkston, and yet the City Council in Clarkston, except for the mayor, is all white.

HINAJOSA: Well, it takes a process to become a citizen. So you have to assume that there's part of that. And I think that there's also -- if I was coming in from outside, and I was looking at politics in the United States of America, I don't know if I would think that there was a voice for me or a place for me. Sometimes the politics in this country can seem so divisive. So what we want to do is to open up the conversation. What does it mean in a place like Clarkston where the majority is not white, and yet the City Council continues to be all white?

CAVANAUGH: Well, what does it mean in a place like City Heights where you, Norma, you go and people to become frequent rather than infrequent voters? And we've seen recently in an election for a City Council member in City Heights, district 9, and one person of color ran and he lost. So what does that mean?

SANDOVAL: Well, it means that we're obviously not participating. Communities of color, and their needs, are typically ignored because we have historically not been involved and active in the electoral process. So we're trying to change that. We're committed to making it so that we all have a voice and participate. If we changed the number of eligible voters that participate, we want have great power and be able to have our voices heard.

CAVANAUGH: What is the level of political engagement of the people you meet when you go around and ask them if they intend to vote and establish a dialogue with them about politics?

SANDOVAL: I think that because I personally was raised in the community and I know a lot of people from having been a teacher, a community activist in my church, and all around, people will listen to me, and they vice president my opinion. However, if it's just someone I don't know, they'll listen like, oh, yeah, that sounds great, but I have -- I have to go to work or I don't have anyone to take care of my kids, and they'll give me several excuses about why they can't participate. And even though I give them the option of having the mail be sent to them, the mail-in ballot, they say I don't always understand what the measures are about. So what we're trying to do is educate the community about what the measures are, and they themselves decide which side they want to partake on.

CAVANAUGH: Bob Nyour dealings with people who are new to this country, what is the level of political engagement that you find among people who are in the process of and have become American citizens?

MONTGOMERY: Well, I think they're in their infancy stages I think that there are certain people in all the refugee communities who are becoming more and more politically savvy. But I think the biggest challenge that we have is just getting people to become U.S. citizens. There's several barriers, the high cost of the application, the language barrier, especially for some of our elderly, and the knowledge of the process, and we try to address those to get people naturalized so they can participate. But it's a long process for immigrants. I know that when refugees do become naturalized citizens, they do participate, and they do want to vote. But it is difficult for them to get engaged and get all the necessary information so they can be civically engaged in a meaningful way.

HINAJOSA: And then what ends up happening, and that's why the work that Norma is doing is so fascinating -- my kind of metamessage is that this new generation have to be -- the weight of democracy is on their shoulders. These are the demographic groups that are growing. We can't deny that. 43% demographic growth of the Latino population in the last census. And tell be more than that in the next census. So to have young people be in a home where they are hearing their parents say oh, I'm not going to vote, it's not for me, it's too long, they didn't listen to me the last time I voted, I feel ignored, to have a younger generation growing up and hearing that is really a danger to our democracy. That's the last thing you want happening. We need to make sure that this generation that can vote is inculcating in their kids who are growing up 100% American, a very clear understanding of their roots and identity, we have to to be sure that these young people understand that the vote is an essential part of democracy. I believe whether you're here in the country with or without papers, you are part of a democracy, part of a society, you're part of creating a society. But for those who can vote, it's essential that we inculcate in them and in their children the power of the vote.

SANDOVAL: And going with that, I personally take my four children when I do the walkthroughs through the community, and I ask my 6-year-old, why ever we doing this? We need to get people to vote. And I ask my 12-year-old, why are we doing this? Because they're not listening to us. So we need to be the role models for the future generation.

CAVANAUGH: And there is a direct connection you make between the communication you have with people you're urging to vote between voting and getting things like potholes fixed and community centers, and state parks, and things of that nature. Do you make that connection?

SANDOVAL: Absolutely. Because I have met with city officials, and oftentimes we were told directly, well, it's great, we're here because we really believe in this mission, but your people are not voting. So if I have to go with my electorate, I'm not really representing my electorate when I'm doing the things they're asking. So we're urging everyone that is eligible and who can vote to participate because that's going to give us or powers in the community to fix the things that are for our children, for our communities, so we can have a better livelihood.

CAVANAUGH: People with conservative political views are often afraid of immigrant populations beginning to vote, but the new voters that you talk to in this documentary are by no means cookie cutter liberals are they?

HINAJOSA: No, they're not. And if you believe in democracy, that's what you want. It's not just people doing all the same thing. One family that we met from Bhutan, in Clarkston, Georgia, the youngest son, they're all voting for first time, they just registered. Three children, two adults. The youngest is a hip hop dude from Clarkston, and he loves Ron Paul. The two older sisters love Obama precisely because of his healthcare. That's what they mentioned. The mother I would say is truly one of those undecided voters. And the father says I'm from Bhutan, so this conversation about gay marriage or abortion rights, I'm not into that. So I think I'm a conservative. But does Romney really represent me? So this is the future of the American voter. It is not simple, it is not a block. They are as Norma says, just really wanting to be heard. And if you go back to the essence of what a democracy is, that's what you want. You want that give and take. You want to have people who are engaged. So when I hear Norma talking about the fact that she engages voters who are, like, no, I voted last time, nothing happened, that's not what we want to hear, especially when the numbers clearly reflect that our democracy is changing.

CAVANAUGH: KPBS is holding a screening of the PBS need to know election special, America by the numbers, with Maria.