How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

LA’s Thai Town, only one in US, turns 15

Thai Town turns 15

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Ruen Pair servers Champ Jansaeng (l.) Aeumporn Klunkruwat (r.) ready for the dinner crowd.

Thai Town turns 15

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Chancee Martorell, executive director of the Thai Community Development Center, first pushed for the Thai Town designation as a planning graduate student.

Thai Town turns 15

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Wannuwat Phiansuhap dishes up a plate of Ruen Pair's specialty, papaya salad — which is spiced to order.

Thai Town turns 15

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Thai Town spans six blocks of East Hollywood. It's mostly comprised of restaurants and businesses, but is also a hub for social services and a port of entry for new immigrants.

Thai Town turns 15

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Cook Som Cha Kanthama in between orders.

Thai Town Turns 15

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Performers at the Los Angeles Songkran Festival in Thai Town, a New Year's celebration that takes place in April.

Thai Town turns 15

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The Thai Town birthday celebration will take place at the Thailand Plaza.


Ruen Pair opened about 20 years ago, a small mom-and-pop restaurant in East Hollywood that spiced its papaya salad to order.

There were half a dozen tables at the outset. Then the city named the neighborhood the country’s first — and only – Thai Town 15 years ago: Oct. 27, 1999.

Business picked up and several years ago the restaurant expanded to 14 tables, said Champ Jansaeng, whose family runs Ruen Pair, something he credits to the Thai Town designation.

"It really did open it up for people to know about Thai Town and Thai culture, so people started taking an interest and becoming more adventurous in their food adventures," Jansaeng said.

Today, Thai Town is comprised of about 60 businesses — restaurants, markets, bakeries, spas and mechanic shops centered over six city blocks on Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie avenues.

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In immigration news: Fewer border deaths, Ebola-related discrimination, military program on hold, more

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A grave marker for an unidentified migrant. Reported border-crossing deaths are at their lowest point in 15 years, in part as more Central American migrants crossing through Texas have been presenting themselves to authorities, seeking asylum.

Deaths At US-Mexico Border Reach 15-Year Low - NPR More on how reported border-crossing deaths are down, as more Central Americans cross through Texas and present themselves to agents seeking asylum, as opposed to trekking on through the wilderness. But as more migrant traffic has moved to Texas, more people are dying there, with the U.S. Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector reporting more deaths last fiscal year than the deadly Tucson, Arizona sector.

With U.S. Ebola fear running high, African immigrants face ostracism - Reuters Some African immigrants report being discriminated against in light of the Ebola virus scare. One woman described being yelled at outside her child's school in Staten Island, New York; others have reported incidents in which they've felt under suspicion. From the story: "Some Liberians, whose home country has been hardest hit by the worst outbreak of the virus on record, say they are being shunned by friends and co-workers and fear losing their jobs."

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In immigration news: Released detainees, speculation over executive action, border deaths, new citizens called to civic duty, more

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Records show that among the 2,000-plus people released from immigrant detention last year in a money-saving move, some had faced serious criminal charges.

U.S. misinformed Congress, public on immigrant release - USA Today Newly obtained records "contradict the Obama administration's assurances to Congress and the public that the 2,200 people it freed from immigration jails last year to save money had only minor criminal records." The records show that some of those released had more serious criminal histories, including homicide charges.

Angst grows over Obama’s plans for action on immigration - The Hill U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service has reportedly sought to procure "as many as 34 million work permits and green cards." The news has been "prompting Republicans to speculate the Obama administration is readying a sprawling executive order that could offer legal status to millions of illegal immigrants."

Immigrants’ School Cases Spur Enrollment Review in New York - New York Times The state of New York is to review school districts’ enrollment procedures "in an effort to eliminate barriers to schooling for undocumented immigrant children." The review comes after reports that some recently arrived children without legal status were barred from class because their families didn't have the documents needed to enroll them.

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Gang tensions upset Pacific Islander community in Los Angeles

Samoan Tongan gang tensions

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Vaka Faletau of the Tongan American Youth Foundation leads a town hall-style meeting about gang tensions between Tongan and Samoan youth.

Samoan Tongan gang tensions

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About 250 people fill the Carson Community Center after holding breakout sessions about street gangs and what to do about them.

Samoan Tongan gang tensions

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June Pouesi of the Office of Samoan Affairs in Carson helped to organize and moderate the event.

Samoan Tongan gang tension

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Chris Ma'umalanga, co-founder of the Tongan American Youth Foundation, said that the minority of gang members have affected the entire Pacific Islander community.

Samoan Tongan gang tensions

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Benjamin Seiuli, 16, of Carson, said of Samoans and Tongans: "We're all one people."


Samoan and Tongan street gangs have clashed in southwest Los Angeles County for decades; but a pair of recent shootings has brought the violence into sharp focus for the larger Pacific Islander community.

Nearly 250 people, including Tongans and Samoans, joined local law enforcement officials at a Carson Community Center town hall meeting Wednesday night, to vent their frustration over gangs and to brainstorm ways to defuse tensions between their young members.   

“The minority of children in our community who are in gangs have affected the entire community,” said Chris Ma'umalanga, co-founder of the Tongan American Youth Foundation. “Now we have to back up and say 'How can we help the situation?'”

Tongan and Samoan leaders started meeting with police after a Sept. 24 shooting outside a Long Beach home injured a Samoan pastor, his wife and another church leader. That attack came days after a Tongan man was fatally shot in Hawthorne.

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Newly naturalized citizens get called to the civic duty of voting — right away

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Maria and Jesus Romero receive stickers from Rosa Vizcarra indicating that they voted. The Mexican couple became naturalized U.S. citizens after 18 years in the states. A new program with the Orange County and Los Angeles County registrar offices allowed the naturalized citizen to register to vote and even vote on site at the L.A. Convention Center.

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Anya Sarinana of the Orange County registrar office helps newly naturalized citizens register to vote after a naturalization ceremony at the L.A. Convention Center.

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Teresa Maya of Mexico has been in the U.S. for 19 years. She studied for four years before attending the naturalization ceremony at the L.A. Convention Center. Her immediate family are American citizens and it was time to embrace the U.S., she said.

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Voter registration and sample pamphlets in multiple languages were available after a naturalization ceremony at the L.A. Convention Center.

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Newly naturalized American citizens register to vote after the ceremony at the LA Convention Center.

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Volunteers gave about stickers to newly naturalized American citizens after they registered to vote.


In a room packed with thousands of newly minted citizens waving American flags on Tuesday, Los Angeles and Orange county voting officials saw an opportunity: Signing up potential new voters just in time for the Nov. 4 general election.
 
As new citizens streamed out of two citizenship ceremonies at the L.A. Convention Center, voter registration workers from L.A. and Orange counties waved them down. Then they steered them to a workshop in a room nearby, where they could sign up to vote.
 
Antonio Martinez, an immigrant from Venezuela, said he figured he'd register to vote one of these days. He wasn’t expecting an instant call to civic duty.
 
“Someone stopped me downstairs, and they told me, if you want to register right now, I can do so," said Martinez, a real estate agent who has lived in the United States for 14 years. "So I did. That is wonderful. You can register to vote and become a citizen on the same day? That is great.”
 
L.A. County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan says his office typically has a presence at citizenship ceremonies, but that this time they kicked it up a notch, with post-ceremony voter workshops that were announced to the crowd as ceremonies were ending.
 
The goal Tuesday, he said, was to take advantage of a special right new citizens have: While everyone else had to register by Monday to cast a ballot next month, the newly naturalized are excepted. They may still register onsite at a citizenship ceremony, or at county headquarters in Norwalk.
 
"Even if it is after the cutoff for voter registration, you can still register and cast a ballot in this election," Logan said. "And what greater opportunity than to get people right at the time they become citizens, and to reinforce the importance of voting and participating in our elections."
 
Some new citizens can be hard to draw to the polls. Studies have found that while foreign-born, naturalized Latinos have higher turnout than Latinos who are native-born, the opposite is true for Asian-Americans, who face language and other barriers to participation.

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