WASHINGTON — More than 80% of naturalized Latino immigrants have registered to vote, a national study has found, reflecting a high level of interest on the part of immigrants in participating in the U.S. political process.
The study, conducted for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, showed an 81% registration level among foreign-born Latino citizens, eclipses the rate for all American citizens, 70% of whom are registered to vote.
The registration finding defies conventional wisdom that Latinos generally are uninterested in American politics, said Harry Pachon, executive director of NALEO and a professor of politics at Pitzer College in Claremont.
The study found that about 25% of naturalized Latino immigrants have not embraced either political party, and that 62% of legal immigrants who are eligible for citizenship have no party preference.
The survey was based on 1,636 interviews with naturalized citizens and permanent legal residents from eight states, including California. Nearly half of the participants were born in Mexico, while more than a fourth immigrated from Cuba. The rest were from 15 other Latin American nations.
Among naturalized immigrants from Mexico, 42% identified themselves as Democrats and 16% as Republicans. That contrasts sharply with naturalized Cubans, 63% of whom are affiliated with the Republican Party and 9% with the Democratic Party.
Among naturalized immigrants from other nations, 34% called themselves Democrats and 28% Republicans. In the U.S. voting population at large, 35% identify themselves as Democrats and 27% as Republicans.
"We found that voting is a leading reason for becoming a U.S. citizen, so these unaffiliated citizens represent an untapped well for the parties to court," said Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), president of the association's educational fund.
Pachon said almost 5 million non-naturalized Latinos legally reside in the country. And by late 1993, that pool will increase by nearly 2 million under the terms of the nation's alien amnesty law.
The study found that 95% of Latinos polled cited voting as one of the leading reasons for naturalizing. Providing greater opportunities for their children and enhanced immigration prospects for family members also were considered primary reasons.
NALEO officials said the findings may signal the need for an overhaul of traditional party recruiting tactics.
"What this means is that perhaps political parties and strategists should adopt a longer-term political empowerment strategy," Pachon said. "Rather than conducting registration drives, perhaps these groups should pour their efforts into naturalization drives."
Carmen O. Perez, vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said the NALEO study will force political parties to re-examine approaches aimed at largely Latino communities.
"These people are up for grabs," Perez said. "We're in a competitive situation here, and, obviously, we can't take any presumed party affiliation for granted."
Latinos traditionally are identified with the Democratic Party, Pachon said, primarily because they tend to fall into lower- and middle-income groups.
The study also found an overwhelming majority of Latino immigrants intend to stay in the United States, but many have delayed applying for citizenship because they say the exam is too difficult.