A silent constituency

Editorial Notebook

October 30, 2004|By Marjorie Valbrun

SIMON MDUMDU, a self-proclaimed political junky, can't get enough of President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. He scans newspapers each day to try to determine who is ahead, and he listens intently to broadcast news shows to gauge the daily issues dominating their speeches.

So why isn't he voting? He's an illegal immigrant, so he can't vote. Nonetheless, what the eventual winner does to address the legal status of people such as Mr. Mdumdu is vitally important to the 8 million undocumented immigrants who have made the United States home - welcomed or not.

By default, they are a silent constituency. Yet relatives who are naturalized citizens speak for them by voting. Organizations that support relaxed immigration laws advocate for them. Employers and farmers who need workers lobby for them. Labor unions represent them. The status of immigrants may not have been much of an issue in the presidential race, but "immigration reform" loomed large in the background, a subtext of two key campaign issues: homeland security and the economy. The yin and yang of the immigration debate.

Both candidates have promised to reform the immigration system, but they'll have to negotiate the political landmines between those who want immigrants here and those who, since 9/11, vehemently do not.

And Mr. Mdumdu admits he's having a hard time putting much credence in what either says now, in the heat of the race.

He arrived from Kenya last October. He says he headed a transport workers' union there and was arrested seven times and tortured for organizing strikes and speaking out against corruption. His three buses were confiscated and his house burned to the ground.

"I heard what Bush said last year about giving people papers or something," he said. (That was an immigration reform proposal that vanished from sight days after it was put forward.) "I think there should be such a program, even if it's for a certain period of time. It's better than nothing, and I would really like to be working."

For every illegal immigrant like Mr. Mdumdu, intently following the race, there are others like Emma Mari Mukanyandwi, whose comfortable life in Rwanda, where she owned a travel agency, was turned upside-down. She lived through one of the worst genocides in African history in the early 1990s, when ethnic Hutus and Tutsis slaughtered each other. Her seven siblings and her father were all killed. She herself is part Hutu and part Tutsi.

She fled - to the Ivory Coast, to New York, to Baltimore. For four years here, unable to work, she has lived off the charity of friends. The tragedy back home and her life as an undocumented person here have left her feeling rudderless, homeless on both continents. "I have never suffered in my life the way that I have suffered in America," she says wearily. "Americans don't know anything about immigration, what it's like coming here without any papers, being unable to work. They don't get it."

A question about the presidential race brought a quick and wary answer. "I pay no attention to politics. I don't like politics," she said, echoing other nervous immigrants from countries where political activism can be deadly. "It's none of my business."

Then, on second thought: "This campaign, if it will help us, it would be good for us. Even if they just allowed us Social Security cards so we can work. I know they are worried about terrorists, but not everyone is a terrorist. Why won't they welcome us when Americans are welcomed everywhere?"

On Tuesday, Ms. Mukanyandwi got that welcome - an official one. An immigration judge granted her political asylum, and now she can legally live and work in the United States. The change in her status is immense. Fear and anxiety have been lifted - and with them, perhaps, her aversion to politics in her adopted country.

- Marjorie Valbrun

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