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Jax Hts. group urges immigrants to vote

Volunteers with a Jackson Heights−based immigrant advocacy group knocked on apartment doors and private homes around the neighborhood Sunday as part of an effort to mobilize foreign−born voters in the neighborhood.

Most of the volunteers could not vote because they are not citizens, but the outreach was their way of participating in an election in which they cannot cast a ballot, according to Andrew Silverstein, the civic engagement organizer for New Immigrant Community Empowerment.

“We’re aware that it’s a big election,” said one of those non−citizens, Roxana Dance, a native of Peru.

Before the dozen or so volunteers hit the streets, a prep meeting conducted in Spanish urged the group’s members not to mention the names of presidential candidates U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (D−Ill.) and John McCain (R−Ariz.). They were also reminded that the goal of the outreach was to motivate Hispanic voters to turn out on Election Day, no matter which candidate they choose.

NICE volunteer Beatriz Gil, who will be allowed to participate in an election for the first time this year, said voting in Latin American countries is seen as a duty while most Americans do not see casting a ballot as an obligation.

“A lot of us come from countries where it’s ingrained as part of a civic engagement when you’re very young,” she said. “Here voting is taken for granted. It’s generalized apathy. A lot of people feel their vote doesn’t count.”

Dance said there are repercussions for not voting in her native country.

“In Peru, if you don’t vote, you pay a fine,” she said.

She said her husband, who has been in the country for 20 years, never voted in the United States before, but registered this year and will cast a ballot.

She said the voting power of immigrants in Jackson Heights and surrounding communities went largely unnoticed by elected officials until recently.

“We contribute to the advancement of this country,” she said.

In the end, volunteers knocked on more than 500 doors throughout Jackson Heights, according to Silverstein.

“Most people had a positive reaction,” he said. “They understand the message that it’s important to vote as immigrants.”

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e−mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 173.

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