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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

New Citizens Eager to Add Voices to the Fray

Many at swearing-in ceremony say the political tumult brings home the fundamental reason they came to America: freedom.

August 21, 2003|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The 6,298 Southern Californians sworn in as new citizens Wednesday never learned in their classes that you can yank a sitting governor from office in midterm.

Now that they know, many said they saw the process -- however much it may be lampooned on late-night television -- as a triumph of democracy.

"This is what's amazing about this country: People can actually remove someone in power," marveled Massoud Khederzadeh, an Iranian native and Irvine computer engineer who accompanied his mother to the ceremonies at the Pomona Fairplex.

"This is absolutely impossible in Iran: Once they're in power, they're in power."

Not everyone agreed.

"It's silly, crazy," said Father Pedro Valdez, 35, a Mexican native who serves as associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Palmdale. "It makes me question American democracy.... People should stay in power until the next election."

But even if they disagreed about the outcome, people interviewed in the huge crowd agreed on one point: They were delighted that they could freely voice their opinions on who should govern, and many seemed eager to register to vote.

Sadelaida Orozco, a 34-year-old nursing assistant from Mexico, said she had always been chagrined that she could not register to vote at the tables set up outside the stores where she shops. "Now I can," she said, beaming, adding that she intended to vote in the recall campaign even though she remained confused over the array of candidates.

"I told my husband, 'Now I'm going to be able to vote,' " she said.

Volunteers from various political parties camped outside the swearing-in site to register the new citizens to vote. The Republican Party booth featured a cardboard cutout of President Bush -- a popular draw for picture-taking -- and signs in English and Spanish: "To Vote on Recall Must Register by September 21."

Inside, the ceremony included people from more than 100 countries -- dressed in Sikh turbans and Islamic head scarves, in Buddhist robes and Roman collars.

Twenty-eight members of the U.S. armed forces born in nations ranging from South Korea to Guatemala became citizens as well.

Overall, about one-third of California's 24.6 million who are eligible to vote are immigrants, according to the U.S. Census, but immigrants make up a much smaller percentage of those who actually show up to vote.

As the immigrants here shared tales of fleeing war, sectarian violence and religious discrimination, many said the recall election underscored the fundamental reason they came here: freedom.

Verine Tan, 24, said she left West Java in Indonesia in 1996 to study at Cal State Fullerton, and decided to stay when violence in her homeland against people of Chinese descent, like herself, escalated two years later. In addition, she said, career opportunities were limited in Indonesia because political office and government jobs in the world's largest Islamic nation were largely reserved for native Indonesian Muslims.

Here, Tan said, she has had the freedom to study business management, get a job in marketing -- and register to vote in the October recall election.

"I find we can speak out here. Everybody is treated equally. We can get more involved in politics," Tan said. "In Indonesia our voice will never be heard."

At the moment, she said, she was leaning against Gov. Gray Davis because a friend who is a teacher told her about the impact of state budget cuts on public schools.

Indeed, although Davis has drawn relatively high support from immigrants in the past, he seemed to elicit few votes of confidence Wednesday, even among those immigrants who said they lean Democratic.

In an exit poll conducted by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center during the 2002 general election, Davis was backed by 63.9% of foreign-born voters. According to the center's Dan Ichinose, Davis' expected support of two bills -- one to allow illegal immigrants to obtain drivers' licenses and another to require that businesses translate contracts into Asian languages to protect consumers who don't read or speak English fluently -- also seem likely to appeal to immigrants.

For many here, however, personal experience seemed to outweigh such policy issues.

Tony Cruz, 57, a native of the Philippines, said he was infuriated by increases in the vehicle registration fee, a particular burden now that he is unemployed. Soraya Meena Safi, who fled Afghanistan in 1984 after the Soviet invasion of her native land, lambasted Davis for "messing up a lot on education," including painful tuition hikes and classroom cuts that have complicated her pursuit of a biology degree at Cal State Fullerton.

Rex Camacho, a Walnut resident and computer consultant from the Philippines, criticized Davis for "ruining the state with all his special interest groups." He praised the recall process as a triumph of "free choice" and a more orderly way to allow a democratic regime change than the tumultuous "people's power" movement that ousted Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Camacho, dressed in business attire and reflective sunglasses, made a beeline for the Republican booth even before his swearing in and promptly signed up.

"Arnold, Arnold," he chanted to no one in particular, referring to celebrity candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Tan, too, found the actor attractive as a candidate. "Like him, I'm a foreigner," she said. "I feel some kind of familiarity with him, and I have faith he can be a good governor."

Regardless of party, Safi seemed to sum up the feelings of many here: "The recall system is really rare," she said. "This is one of the cases where people really do get to have a say in who leads them."

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