Fledgling Immigration Activists Lobby on Capitol Hill

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About 75 Californians lobbied on Capitol Hill Tuesday to for changes to immigration law. Many of these first-time lobbyists are brand new citizens who benefited from the amnesty Congress offered to undocumented immigrants the last time it tackled the issue. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde says a new study suggests that political activism is a common byproduct of amnesty.

Kitty Felde: Victoria Lopez became an American citizen about a month ago. She and her family came to this country illegally, but they qualified for amnesty under the 1986 immigration reform bill. The process took a long time.

Victoria Lopez: It was very difficult to get the paperwork through immigration, and finally my whole family became residents, and we had to wait five years, and finally it was my decision immediately to become a citizen. I want to be able to participate, to vote.

Felde: Lopez, a college graduate, has taken her activism beyond the voting booth. She's in charge of civic participation at CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center. And this week, she's flying to Washington to meet with Congressional members about future immigration reform legislation.

Lopez: I've never been to Washington, and I've participated in many marches here in L.A., and to go to Washington and lobby out there, and march out there, is just so exciting. (laughs) To go to the capital of our nation.

Felde: The activism of Victoria Lopez doesn't surprise UCI political science professor Louis De Sipio. De Sipio wondered whether the change in an immigrant parent's legal status affects a child's political engagement. De Sipio looked at 5,600 children of immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. What he discovered was that children whose parents had completed the amnesty process became better citizens than the children of legal permanent residents, or the children of parents who remained illegal.

Louis De Sipio: The kid consciously or subconsciously realizes that it was the state and state action that made the parent legal in the United States, and that that came out of collective political action, and that increases the sort of sense of political efficacy in the child, and that leads to a higher likelihood of not just voting, but also being a member of a community-based organization, and being involved in politics in a lot of other ways.

Felde: Professor De Sipio says he came to that conclusion after statistically accounting for other factors, such as education levels, age, and geographic differences. But not everyone sees this increased activism as a plus. Al Garza is National Executive Director of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.

Al Garza: I don't see anything American about this at all. They're not fighting for the Americans, per se, they're fighting for ethnicity.

Felde: Garza says people like Victoria Lopez are politically motivated to work only for Latino issues. Professor Louis De Sipio is now studying children of Asian immigrant parents to see if the pattern of political activism is as strong in those communities. His results will be published in an academic journal this summer.