When earlier generations of immigrants turned to politics, their heavy urban concentrations and ethnic-based party machines won them clout at city hall, patronage for their kin and vast power for their politicians, such as Boston's legendary Irish "boss," James M. Curley. For today's new immigrants in the Washington area, those days are gone.

Geographically dispersed around the area and heirs to economic and social opportunities their predecessors did not enjoy, many of the recent immigrants say the old-style ethnic politics is neither possible nor desirable. Rather, interviews with foreign-born politicians and observers of politics here suggest that coalition-building and blending will be the favored way to make an impact on local governments.

Even the District's Hispanics, who have made up one of the area's largest and most visible ethnic minorities for more than 25 years, have not become a powerful ethnic political bloc. This may change, however, as some of the city's undocumented Hispanics become citizens under the new federal amnesty law.

"There is a constant, constant, ongoing drive for mainstreaming," said Prince George's Orphan's Court Judge David M. Valderrama, the first Philippine-born elected judge on the East Coast and vice chairman of THE NEW IMMIGRANTS POLITICS: BLENDING IN the county's Democratic Party Central Committee.

"The approach has got to be different from, for example, the Hispanics in Miami. They really flaunt it . . . because they have the numbers. The way to do it {here} is coalition-building."

The primary reason the political experience of today's immigrants will be different is demographic dispersal. Before, immigrants tended to congregate in the center of cities, allowing ethnic wards and precincts to form. The estimated 450,000 newcomers here are spread out, with two-thirds living in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Thus it would be difficult for any ethnic group to become a majority in any district or ward.

This dispersal is the result of communities that are more open to ethnic diversity than they once were, the abundance of jobs outside the city and greater mobility due to public and private transportation. "It's not like the 1920s," said Alan M. Kraut, an American University specialist in the history of immigration. "New immigrants get licences and drive . . . . "

A second reason: politics and patronage are not the route to jobs and upward mobility they once were for immigrants in cities such as Boston, Chicago and Baltimore. Political parties no longer have a lock on city and county jobs. Numerous social services agencies now exist to help refugees find work, while civil rights laws, most of which did not exist until the 1960s, have helped to open up the job market for immigrants.

"There's a net under them that just wasn't there" for earlier immigrants, Kraut said. "For many Irish, politics itself was a means for upward mobility . . . . The early 19th century political machines . . . were political organizations that depended on a high concentration of semi- or uneducated immigrants who depended on the machine {for services} rather than on the government, and their clout was exercised through sheer force of numbers."

" 'Irish Need Not Apply' signs are long gone," said Arlington County Treasurer Francis X. O'Leary, whose tax office staff includes nine recent immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, China, Afghanistan, India and Iran. "The potential for upward mobility is much greater."

In an earlier day, politically ambitious ethnic minorities stood virtually no chance of achieving elected office in the majority community. Today, though prejudices remain, voting rights laws and changed attitudes have made it easier. "There is greater acceptance of the fact that minorities can run and be as qualified as any other candidate," said Isiah Leggett, who in his successful bid to become the first black member elected to the Montgomery County Council last fall, courted the Hispanic and Asian voters of the county.Hispanics' Clout Lags

The District's Hispanics appear to be the only immigrant group concentrated enough to practice ethnic politics. Yet, no Hispanics serve on the D.C. Council; only one has served on the school board (the controversial Frank Shaffer Corona, who was defeated after a four-year term as an at-large member); the Democratic Party's 69-member state committee, the policy-making board for the city's Democratic Party, includes one Hispanic member, and only three have been appointed to high-level positions in the current administration.

To explain this, many Hispanics point first to the fact that their community includes thousands of undocumented immigrants from Central America. Though many will be eligible for citizenship under the new federal amnesty law, many more may not.

A 1980 survey of Adams-Morgan's Hispanics for the District's Office of Latino Affairs found that only 15 percent of those queried had voted in the previous election. The reason most often given for not voting by those surveyed was "not being a U.S. citizen."

D.C. Council member Frank Smith Jr., whose Ward 1 includes Adams-Morgan, Mount Pleasant and the Howard University area of the city, noted that in 1985 there were only 500 Hispanics among the 28,000 registered voters in his district. City officials said Ward 3 -- northwest of Rock Creek Park -- where Hispanics are much less concentrated, has the largest number of registered Hispanic voters.

Hispanic activists also point out that those in their community in the Washington area, unlike those in Texas or Miami, came from many countries with varying political experiences and thus had little in common to link them together politically.

Finally, many say, the District is traditionally viewed as a temporary stop before moving on to more permanent quarters in the suburbs. "It's like an airport," said Javier Miyares, a Cuban-born Montgomery County political activist who has lived in the area for 10 years. "They come in, get their baggage and then get out to the suburbs."

As a result, "we lose our base, our power; we have to start all over again," said Pedro Lujan, owner of Heller's Bakeries in Adams-Morgan and an immigrant from Peru 25 years ago.

Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas, who has been chairman of Hispanics for Barry in past elections, calls the Hispanic community in Washington a "third force," influential "but not big enough to make a difference" except in a close election. He noted that Mayor Marion Barry won his first primary in 1978 with a plurality of only 1,564 votes.

"Our approach is to support a candidate whose platform or interest coincides with the aspirations of the Hispanic community," he said. "We're not talking a color coalition; we're talking an interest coalition . . . . if you put enough money and enough votes into that person, he will answer to you {as} if he were Hispanic."

In the beginning, District Hispanics had to use a different approach. Led by Carlos Rosario, and singing "We Shall Overcome," Hispanics staged a sit-in in 1968 at the office of then-Mayor Walter E. Washington to demand greater recognition. The Office of Latino Affairs was set up the next year with Rosario as director. Currently run by Puerto Rican-born Arlene Gillespie, the office draws generally favorable reviews from Hispanic activists for helping to deliver government services to their community. Officials in that office are also skilled at generating publicity for their causes.

"They have taken on some tough issues with the government and fought hard," said Democratic Hispanic activist Myrna Peralta. But some observers say this is not enough; that an unintended byproduct of the office has been to hinder political organization among Hispanics. "It has taken away a lot of incentive for Hispanics to organize cohesively as a political action group," said Jose Sueiro, publisher of El Latino, a weekly Spanish-language newspaper in the city with a circulation of 15,000.

"Until we start participating in the electoral process, we will not be making the changes," added Gillespie. "People will be making the changes for us."

Rosario was the first Hispanic to run for office in the city, making an unsuccessful bid in 1974 for the council's Ward 1 seat. Peralta, who serves on the Democratic state committee, predicts that during the next five years, "we will see some Hispanics testing the waters as far as elected positions go . . . . But we've got to have our ducks in order. The Hispanic community has a lot of internal issues to resolve. . . we're diverse."

And, she added, Hispanics must recognize a basic political reality: "In D.C. the main constituency is black. We as Hispanics can't ask the mayor to choose between these two constituencies." For example, she said, "we have to find ways of dealing with the housing problem {which is} a problem for both groups."

"The black community," said Lujan, "suffered and fought a lot to have political power. Now it's hard for them to share political power with Latinos. For too many years they had a hard time. They've just got it. It's hard to share political power."

Smith sees it differently. "If a Hispanic came along at the right time, he could be elected" to the council. In fact, he said, "I think they have a better chance of getting elected in the District than in the surrounding jurisdictions because black people are the most liberal people in the whole world . . . as a result of the years of discrimination we've experienced."

Others say the suburbs are where individual immigrants will make their mark sooner. "Political empowerment for Hispanics will first come in the suburbs, because once they come here, they settle down and get interested in politics," said Miyares, who recently became the first Hispanic elected to the 19-member Montgomery County Democratic Central Committtee. The Candidates Listen

Signs of their involvement are already there. The 1986 county elections were the first in which "I saw Hispanics active at all levels," said Cuban-born Sylvia S. Rodriguez, a member of Maryland's Commission on Human Relations. "We made an attempt. Everything was premeditated and planned . . . that from now on, there will be Hispanics involved with every candidate."

Whereas in previous campaigns "it would have been one appearance per campaign and that's it," Miyares said, successful Montgomery County Executive candidate Sidney Kramer attended many Hispanic functions. "All these are signs things have changed, that there is growing recognition."

Those elections also brought what is believed to be the first bid for state office by an Asian immigrant in the Washington area when Korean-born Kyo R. Jhin of Silver Spring ran for Maryland state delegate.

His candidacy reflected the increasing political awareness of new Korean citizens. Last year, Koreans ranked second among area immigrants who were naturalized, outnumbered only by Vietnamese, according to Immigration and Naturalization Service figures.

Although half of Jhin's campaign volunteers were Asian Americans and his $60,000 contribution list looked like a "Who's Who" in the Asian American community, the 53-year-old Republican campaigned on issues with broad appeal: bringing "a fair share" of tax money back to Montgomery County, improving education, fighting drug abuse and improving child care facilites.

Jhin lost his bid, but garnered 11,075 votes out of 84,961 cast in a predominantly Democratic district with a handful of Asian voters. "It's important to have {Asians'} support," said Jhin, now serving as treasurer of Maryland's Republican Party. "But depending on them alone, it would be impossible to be elected in this metropolitan area. That's why I knocked on the doors of 10,000 homes."

Across the river in Northern Virginia, the Indochinese community also is working on recognition -- and not only with votes. In the past six years, for example, campaign contributions from the Indochinese community to Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf have steadily increased. Last year, he received $25,000 to $30,000 from Indochinese contributors, according to a Wolf spokesman.

Augustine Vinh, 37, who owns a computer service business in Arlington, is a Wolf booster. As head of the Asian Committee to Elect Frank Wolf in the 1984 election, Vinh, who left Vietnam in 1975, mailed 5,000 pamphlets in Vietnamese for the candidate, footing the bill himself.

"He has a very firm plan and clear-cut direction," Vinh said when asked why he supported Wolf. "And maybe someday he will help us get our message across."

"I think they are critical from a numerical point of view," Wolf said of his immigrant constituents. "A lot of elections are very close at times . . . . I can think of elections around the country in which a handful of votes did make a difference."

"We are small in numbers and we are all spread out," said Vietnamese-born Tran Ngoc Chi Ray, who served as an at-large member of the Fairfax County Republican Party executive committee in 1985. "But my approach is to get {Vietnamese} concentrated on local issues, on school boards, on mayors' races. Because there people can make a difference. Even some Americans don't realize that."

The Vietnamese have found other ways to overcome their geographic dispersal, according to Nguyen Ngoc Bich, who works for Arlington County as a liaison with minorities. During Maryland's 1986 senatorial race between Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski and Republican Linda Chavez, questionnaires were sent to both candidates.

The results were broadcast during "Gold Mountain Hour," an Asian-language program aired each Thursday afternoon on WPDC-FM, Bich said. "I don't know how much it affected the voting . . . but this is one of the ways to make up for the scattering business."

Many immigrants say they are still too preoccupied with economic survival to spend time on politics. And others say American grass-roots politics remains a mystery. As Fairfax County jobs developer Trung Trinh noted, to many of his fellow Vietnamese refugees, "being a political leader is something God gave to that person and there is no way people can revoke it."

"I would say the impact of the immigrant population has not yet been taken seriously by the powers that be," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based political consultant and demographer. "The day of reckoning is still around the corner."

Staff researcher Dianne Saenz contributed to this report.