As the Democratic primary season moves to California, many among the state's large number of foreign-born voters are hoping to hear greater discussion of immigration issues. So far, such topics have gotten scant attention in the campaign.
The two leading Democratic candidates, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, agree on many immigration issues that would overturn policies adopted over the last several years. Both disagree sharply with President's Bush recent proposal to create a temporary guest-worker program for immigrant workers.
In California, where the latest census figures put Latinos at 32% of the population and Asians at 11%, and where 44% of Latinos are foreign born, immigration is a pertinent issue, both practically and symbolically.
Leaders of ethnic advocacy groups say a candidate's stand on immigration policy determines one simple factor: whether a candidate is for immigrants or against them.
"Immigration is for Latinos similar to what civil rights is for African Americans," said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster who specializes in opinion research among Latinos.
But minority groups comprise a smaller portion of the state's electorate than its overall population, and candidates generally shy away from trumpeting policies perceived as pro-immigrant that could create a backlash.
"We haven't seen immigration raised as a distinguishing issue," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
Most attention in recent weeks has focused on Bush's guest-worker plan.
The initiative would allow illegal immigrants already working in the United States to become guest workers and remain legally in the country for three years. The workers could eventually compete with would-be immigrants outside the country for a limited number of permanent legal residency slots. An unsuccessful applicant could be deported after the three-year guest worker visa expired.
Edwards has criticized the proposal for failing to provide a clear path to permanent residence and naturalization. He charges that millions of immigrants would be thrust into "a second-class status with no real promise of citizenship."
Kerry has argued that the policy "rewards business over immigrants by providing them with a permanent pool of disenfranchised temporary workers who could easily be exploited by employers."
But some ethnic community advocates have praised Bush for propelling the immigration issue to the fore and for introducing concrete steps toward giving illegal immigrants the chance to become legal residents.
They also maintain that both immigrant and American-born Latinos have become more politically savvy and that Democrats can no longer take their support for granted.
"As a Latino constituent, I am no longer a 12-year-old kid," said Robert de Posada, president of the Latino Coalition, a Washington-based policy group. "I'm not going to take your word and follow you blindly."
Kerry, the front-runner in the Democratic race, supports efforts to restore welfare and healthcare benefits to legal immigrants. He says he would repeal a law that prevents students who are in the country illegally from obtaining federal financial aid to go to college; and he believes illegal immigrants should have the opportunity to gain legal status if they have been in the country for a certain length of time and can pass a background check.
Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, is of Portuguese descent and was raised in Mozambique.
"Being married to an immigrant certainly has strengthened the beliefs he already has of the rights of immigrants in the makeup of this country," said Laura Capps, communications director for Kerry's campaign in California. "Seeing America through her eyes has strengthened his conviction of how immigrants should be treated."
Like Kerry, Edwards supports measures to allow those who are here illegally to work their way into citizenship.
If elected, he has said, he would increase money for programs that help low-income students prepare for college and address healthcare disparities between immigrants and U.S. citizens by establishing a national 24-hour medical translation hotline for rural and small hospitals.
He also promises to expedite the reunification of immigrant families, delayed by backlogs at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"Immigration is important" to Edwards, said Robert Gordon, a senior aide on the senator's election campaign team. "He views the immigrant dream as the American dream, and he believes immigrants have contributed immeasurably to America."
In the rural town of Robbins, N.C., where he grew up, 50% of the families now are Latino, Edwards says, adding that they "believe in the same American dream as my family did -- if you work hard, you sacrifice for your family, and your children's lives will be better."