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On the Issues: Immigration

In Latino Communities, Few Are Lukewarm About Chance to Vote

By Jon Jeter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2004; Page A05

MELROSE PARK, Ill. -- Alfredo Guizarnotegui was opening the front door to the apartment building when a car door slammed shut, piercing the late-morning stillness. He pivoted and sized up a dark-haired woman as she hoisted grocery sacks in her arms, concluding from her purposefulness, utilitarian turtleneck and worn loafers that she was all he was searching for: a citizen.

"Hello," Guizarnotegui said in Spanish as he glided over to her car in what seemed like a single, fluid step, his clipboard in hand. "Are you registered to vote?"

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"No," Edith Sosa said politely as she made her way to her apartment. "I'm not interested." Asked why not, she answered: "I just don't think it will make a difference. No one is going to help the Latinos, our communities. Not the Democrats. Not the Republicans. I just think voting is a waste of time."

Guizarnotegui thanked Sosa and walked away. "Unfortunately, a lot of our people think the same way," he said. Registering voters in this blue-collar Chicago suburb, he has discovered, is a little like talking about religion. Among the mostly Latino immigrants who live here, there are believers and there are heretics, but there are few agnostics.

"It all depends which door you knock on," he said.

The sticking point is not complacency. Virtually anyone here can rattle off the most pressing problems that confront Melrose Park: Immigration reform is needed to reunite families; the good-paying factory jobs that once lured immigrants to Chicago are migrating to Mexico and other points south; families need better health care, and the young need better access to financial aid to attend college.

The question that divides Melrose Park is not which party or candidate will address those needs, but whether either party will make any difference. When President Bush and John F. Kerry were asked about immigration during their debate Wednesday night, they talked principally about border security and a guest-worker program.

"Politicians have traditionally ignored the needs of immigrant communities such as Melrose Park," said Joel Sanchez, an organizer for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which conducted a drive to register naturalized citizens in immigrant and working-class communities in the Chicago area.

"Everyone is fed up with the status quo, but it's inspired two opposite reactions," he said. "Some people are eager to engage the political system more than we ever have before to get some attention. And others think politics are utterly hopeless in improving their lives."

Guizarnotegui is among the former. At 23, he is unassuming, slightly built and idealistic, a Mexican immigrant who crossed the border illegally five years ago to join his mother and stepfather. He spent his summer working two jobs, one full time as a United Parcel Service deliveryman, the other part time at a bottling plant here. In September, he quit UPS to enroll at a community college. He wants to do something with computers.

He also wants to "see a revolution," which is why he volunteered to help the coalition's voter registration drive after work and on weekends.

"There are just too many people here in this country who go to work every day, pay their taxes, obey the law, and their families can't come here because of the immigration laws," he said.

"I was lucky," he said. "My grandfather was a U.S. citizen, so I should be a citizen in four years. But this is about citizenship, and citizenship doesn't just mean having the right papers."

On a gray Saturday afternoon, Guizarnotegui was turning from a yellow bungalow's front door after his third knock went unanswered when a barrel-chested man emerged, shirtless. Jose Rodriguez said he was registered to vote, but he was fuzzy on the details.

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