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New Americans for the Next America : Once Again, Immigrants Change U.S. Political, Cultural Identity

May 11, 1986|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is publisher of American Political Report and Business and Public Affairs Fortnightly

WASHINGTON — From Cuban Miami to the Koreatown and Little Manila of Los Angeles, the Sun Belt of quintessentially Ronald Reagan repute is becoming America's new Ellis Island--Asian- and Latin-tilted. U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics may never be the same.

The original Ellis Island of 80 years ago was part of a transatlantic-oriented America that looked back to Europe. Ethnic politicking and "Old Country" culture tilted accordingly. Even a decade ago, New York City office seekers prepared themselves with fact-finding missions to Ireland, Israel and Italy. But the emerging question of the late 1980s is: How soon will California politicos begin to find it important to junket to Mexico City, Manila, Tokyo and Seoul? And what will it mean?

Another milestone in the continuing reorientation of America, probably. The new immigration to the Sun Belt, despite its cultural controversies, amounts to a kind of demographic seal of recognition on the region's emergence as this country's new power center. It's a further sign that the economic and political power in the United States is shifting away from an Eastern seaboard built around America's past European orientation. By contrast, the emerging Florida-Texas-California Sun Belt, with its burgeoning Third World population, represents a power axis increasingly based on interaction with Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

It's a two-way politics, of course--just as it was a century ago when Irish-Americans in New York or Boston kept a watchful eye on the restiveness back in Ireland. Repeating that pattern, some new Asian and Latin American immigrant communities here have assumed an increasing role in the elections, political movements or even revolutions back home. Although Cubans, Chinese and Vietnamese cannot, because their countries are in communist hands, the Guatemalan, Colombian and Costa Rican populations of Los Angeles and New York have played a substantial part in their native countries' elections. National candidates from these countries visited both cities to raise campaign money, and sizeable emigre communities in the United States still cast votes south of the border. U.S.-based expatriates have also been a force in promoting liberalization by authoritarian regimes in countries like the Philippines and Korea. And since the Sandinistas took power in 1979, roughly 175,000 Nicaraguans have come to the United States--principally to Florida, with California second. Most are supporters of the insurgent contra forces.

The consequences for internal U.S. politics should be at least as significant. To begin with, there's reason to question post-World War II precedents that new voters from below the Rio Grande and west of Hawaii favor liberal ideas and Democratic candidates.

To be sure, that has been the dominant tilt of the earlier Asian and Latin American immigrations--Mexicans, Japanese, Puerto Ricans and Filipinos (since 1965, they've ranked second only to Mexicans). Yet conservatives can cite substantial pro-Reagan voting in 1984, plus indications of rightward movement among these groups, particularly on the cultural front. As of 1986, largely Catholic Latinos display a conservative profile on issues like abortion, school prayer, busing, gay rights and aid to religious schools.

Asians, by contrast, are conservative on economic issues--opposing welfare outlays, favoring sanctions against employers for hiring illegal immigrants and exceeding other minority groups in support for defense spending. A late 1985 survey of ethnic Californians released by Caltech found Asians also had "a strong pro-business attitude." As well they should, given the ratio of Asian shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Cubans and Indochinese, meanwhile, lean rightward because the loss of their homelands to communism. Somewhat the same is true of Nicaraguans, although few have become U.S. citizens. Koreans and Taiwanese also share some "Old Country" anti-communism. Hardly any fit a liberal stereotype.

The result is that a number of these groups are becoming Republicans, not Democrats. Growing numbers of Cubans, for example, have become an important force in the GOP--not just in greater Miami, but even in New Jersey, where Cubans in Hudson County (Jersey City), long the seat of a stereotypical Irish Democratic machine, are now beginning to tip the area Republican. The Indochinese are voting Republican, too, and although they don't constitute a large electorate, there has already been talk about a GOP Vietnamese congressional candidate in California. Even the Koreans and Taiwanese, albeit not as Republican as the Cubans and Indochinese, constitute a future electoral pool for the GOP at least as much as for Democrats.

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