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Columbia Immigration: New Voters, Old Fears

Immigrant Perspectives

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By Stokely Baksh, Jonathan Maher, July 30, 2008

Will Asian and Latino immigrants back an African-American candidate for president? That was the question that reporters from News21 posed to scores of immigrant voters in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and New York.

In the past, tension between immigrants and blacks has erupted into violence in Miami, Los Angeles and New York. Last year, a nationwide survey conducted by an association of ethnic media organizations found that almost half of Hispanic and Asian immigrants were "generally afraid" of African-Americans. Would these fears jeopardize Barack Obama's support — even among voters who identify as Democrats?

What we found surprised us, and may surprise you. We did find voters who rejected Obama because he was black. Chow Sombati, 69, a Thai immigrant living in Los Angeles, usually votes for Democrats, but he is skeptical of Obama. "This country, you don’t have enough white people to be president?" Sombati asked. "You have to choose the black people?"

Others didn't think it was important. They wanted Obama because they thought he would end the war, or supported John McCain because they thought he would keep America safe. But many of the immigrants we interviewed viewed Obama, the son of a Kenyan, sympathetically. "It’s such a big step to have a member of a minority," said Gerardo Gomez, 22, a Colombian immigrant living in Miami. "As a member of a minority, I can identify with him."

Gomez, we found, represented the greater trend among both Latinos and Asian-Americans. And our anecdotal findings are borne out in current opinion polls, which show Obama with a two-to-one or greater advantage over Republican John McCain.

The age-old tensions between immigrants and African-Americans, which go back as far as the Civil War, may recur, but in this election, they seem to have been put aside. If you don't believe it, watch these videos.

Will fears some immigrants have historically had about blacks affect their support for Barack Obama? The answer - in our video montage of immigrant voices around the country - may surprise you.

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The "New Voters, Old Fears" project examines the political impact of immigrants and immigration. A massive wave of legal - and illegal - immigrants is transforming the United States, changing the way we live and vote, inspiring hope of national renewal, but also provoking fear and resentment. Our team of journalists explores the impact on this year's election, and beyond.

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