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Building Blocs : Karen Escalante Pushes Latinos to Pursue Political Power Through Citizenship Drives and an Awareness of Their Clout as Voters.

August 21, 1994|KAREN ESCALANTE | Karen Escalante, 32, is the acting executive director of NALEO--the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials--a nonprofit, nonpartisan civic research and action group aimed at improving the lives of Latinos in the United States. The group, founded in the late 1970s, is based in Los Angeles and has offices nationwide. Escalante has been with NALEO for four years and was named acting executive director late last year. She was interviewed by Karen E. Klein

When NALEO started its work, we were concerned with the low voting rates among Latinos. Studies have shown that Latinos are among the least likely to vote of any minority group.

Originally, we thought the main problem was lack of voter registration. But after doing some research, we realized the main problem was not registration but lack of citizenship.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, half of the adult Latinos in this country cannot vote because they are not citizens. In the state of California, if you take 100 Latinos, 33 cannot vote because they are under age 18 and another 33 cannot vote because they are not citizens. Automatically, 66% of the Latinos in California are barred from participating in the political process.

Right now, immigrants are being blamed for all the problems we are facing in California. You will never hear a politician blaming other minority groups because other minorities can vote. As long as we are a voiceless community, politically, we'll be scapegoats.

It's so easy to throw tomatoes at a mute person. It's like people are just throwing tomatoes and booing someone whose mouth is covered up and can't say anything. Their hands are tied behind their backs, and that's not really fair.

At NALEO, we believe the immediate response should be for all eligible Latinos to become citizens. That way, we will no longer be easy targets.

In fact, Latinos can become a very powerful voting bloc. In 1992, 1.2 million Latinos in California voted, up from 800,000 in 1988. Carrying the Latino vote can be crucial.

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There is the potential for this state's 1.6 million amnesty applicants to become citizens and be eligible to vote by 1996. Even if half of them become citizens, it would be a very strong influence on the total results of the vote.

That is why we wanted to find out why eligible Latinos were not taking advantage of the opportunity to become U.S. citizens. So, in 1989, we did a national survey of legal, permanent residents eligible to become citizens.

The results showed that the main reasons Latinos do not apply for citizenship are that they are unaware of the benefits of citizenship and are unable to get information from the immigration bureaucracy.

Yet, surprisingly, in our survey, we found that 53% of the eligible Latinos did express an interest in becoming citizens and had taken some kind of step toward the process of naturalization--either they had enrolled in a citizenship class or gotten a citizenship application.

We also found that only 25% of them actually reached their goal and became citizens.

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So we did more questioning as to why they fell out of the process and we found that it's having to deal with this huge INS bureauracracy, having to fill out an application that is four pages long and asks intimidating questions like, "Have you ever committed a crime for which you have not been prosecuted?" and "Are you a Nazi?" That created a lot of confusion for our community.

There was also an element of fear--fear of the INS exam. In reality, to become a citizen you simply have to have a basic knowledge of this country's history and government and be able to speak simple English and write a simple sentence in English. Yet there are a lot of misconceptions in the community--that the English test is very difficult, that applicants have to renounce their country of origin and step on the flag of their birth country.

We have tried to demystify the naturalization process. We use a model we developed in late 1986 that we call a citizenship workshop.

We recruit community volunteers, mostly high school and college students, and we train them on how to fill out the citizenship application correctly.

Then, we find a site in a community that's highly populated by Latinos, like South Gate, Bell, Santa Ana or Oxnard and have the volunteers help the people at the workshop fill out the application.

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We take care of submitting all the completed applications to the INS so the people do not have to deal with the INS at all for that first session. In California, we hold these workshops twice a month. So far this year, we've assisted more than 3,000 people in a dozen workshops, using 80 to 120 volunteers each time.

There is a Spanish saying, "Al que no habla, Dios no lo oiga." It translates: He who does not speak is not heard by God.

If we want to continue to just be statistics and not be heard in this country, we run a lot of risks. There are services available for citizens and there is a willingness on behalf of the INS to naturalize all those who are eligible. If we don't do it for ourselves, we should become citizens for our families.

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