Coalition gears up "New Bostonians" for election 2008

A wide array of ethnic community organizations and lobbying groups are banding together to push for higher registration rolls heading into the September primary and the November election.

Launched last week and spearheaded by the Mayor Thomas Menino's Office of New Bostonians, the campaign has already brought the figure to 300 people, according to early estimates from officials involved in the effort.

The effort grew out of a similar effort last year, "Ya es hora ¡Ciudadanía!"--"Now is the Time Campaign"--aimed at Latinos, and this year expanded to include immigrants of Chinese, Vietnamese and Haitian descent, among others.

"We thought it made sense to expand the campaign to include all the other communities," said Rev. Cheng Imm Tan, director of the Office of New Bostonians.

Other groups participating in the effort include DotWell, a partnership between the Codman Square Health Center and the Dorchester house Multi-Service Center; the Brazilian Immigrant Center; the Cape Verdean Community UNIDO; the Chinese Progressive Association; and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA).

Individuals seeking to vote in the Sept. 16 primary must register by Aug. 27, while the registration deadline for the Nov. 4 general election is Oct. 15.

Four years ago, the state's immigrant population totaled about 907,000, or 14.3 percent, according to a 2005 report from the Office of New Bostonians. In the Boston area, Haitians make up about 11 percent of the foreign population, followed by people from the Dominican Republic, China and Vietnam. Those figures have been on the rise, as European immigrant populations in the area have declined over the past decade. In particular, the Irish immigrant population declined to 93,000 from 128,000 in 1990.

Including groups familiar with new immigrants' cultures "gives people a level of comfort, that they're being welcomed into the process and it doesn't have to be an intimidating process," Tan said.

"We're asking member groups to do what they're already doing," she said, but also to "pool their efforts." "We achieved much more than we would have on an individual basis," she said.

A city-wide voter registration effort was held last Saturday, in locations from Fields Corner to Chinatown, and Tan said "we might do another one depending on the people power."

Also in the planning stages is a voter education forum on immigration and education issues and jobs, according to Tan.

DotWell had posts at Codman Square, Fields Corner and Grove Hall. "We were all over," said Doreen Treacy, director of the CivicHealth Institute at DotWell.

She said they registered about 75 voters, along with 10 people who filled out "commitment cards," meaning people who are already registered but promised to bring another person to the voting booth with them or spend time volunteering on a campaign.

"We're pushing on both fronts," Treacy said.

Much of the focus remained on Latino organizations and in Chinatown, with registration forms in Haitian Creole and Vietnamese, she said.

Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy coalition (MIRA) is holding registration drives nearly every week, with a registration event planned at Faneuil Hall on Aug. 28.

"More immigrants are realizing how important it is to have their voice heard," said Shuyo Ohno, a MIRA spokesman. "Especially in times like this, when there's anti-immigrant pressure, it drives communities to assert they are part of this country, this polity."

With the average time of citizenship processing expected to drop six to eight months by the end of September, "we expect a million new Americans to vote in the election," Ohno said.

Riche Zamor, executive director at the Catholic Charities Haitian Multi-Service Center, said his group plans to push for greater registration among immigrants at citizenship and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

"Outside of that, it becomes complicated," he said, noting that his staffers are involved in other activities, along with their families.

Asian-Americans face their own complications, with transliteration--the practice of translating candidates' names into Chinese characters--unable to get through Beacon Hill in a bill before the year's formal session ended in July.

"I think it's a really important initiative to register new voters," said Lydia Lowe, head of the Chinese Progressive Association. "At the same time we have to do work on the other end"--equal access at the ballot.

"Since the community has been more actively involved…losing the bilingual ballot is particularly tragic and makes people angry," she added.

But Councillor at-Large Sam Yoon noted that there was a silver lining, with Asian-Americans who had never stepped foot in the State House before learning about the political process.

"You wish they could've been successful but the lesson is how hard it is to effect change," he said.