Posted on June 4, 2009

Immigrants to Michigan Eye Politics at Home

Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press, May 31, 2009


But the stump speech wasn’t for a race anywhere in the United States–it was for the June 7 national election in Lebanon. The scene was a striking illustration of how the growth of metro Detroit’s immigrant communities, coupled with modern technology, has led to increasing political activity in Michigan for elections held thousands of miles away in foreign countries.

Metro Detroiters also have been involved with elections in Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico, Iran, India and Israel, among other nations, according to interviews with immigrants, politicians and government officials. Foreign candidates and groups, or their representatives, campaign in Michigan. Political parties hold major rallies in the state, and some raise money.

Michiganders have even run for contested races in their native lands, including a Clinton Township man who won an assembly race in India earlier this month. And others go back to vote. This week, many are flying to Lebanon to campaign and cast ballots in an election watched by the U.S. government and others concerned about the Middle East.

Chadi Haddad, 34, of Livonia is one of them, saying that “whatever happens there will affect me here because we have family attachments, economic ties, investments, our attachment to the land.”

But at the same time, Haddad added, “I’m very loyal to America.”

Technology shapes immigration


Technological advances–especially in communications and travel–have reshaped immigration, making it easier to flit back and forth between two worlds.

The changes may be most visible in the way immigrants participate in the politics of their native land. In the past, immigrants who flocked to the United States from European countries maintained close ties to the politics of their birthplaces, but information was slow to reach them. Today, they can take affordable flights, text message or make long-distance phone calls at cheap rates. They also can use a range of tools on the Internet, from blogs to social media networks, to track in minute detail the politics of their native lands.

Faiz Khan, a Pakistani-American activist from Sterling Heights who hosts a local radio show, remembers how in the 1970s, it would often take weeks to learn what was happening in south Asia. Now, in cafés across Dearborn, Arabic satellite TV stations broadcast several updates daily on Lebanon’s heated political races.

‘Immigration has changed’


That has allowed immigrants to quickly organize political events. During the past year, for example, Indian Americans in metro Detroit who speak Telugu rallied for an Indian party in the state of Andhra Pradesh called Telugu Desam. To raise public awareness, they’ve held blood drives and hosted Desam leaders speaking in metro Detroit. Last year, it held a motorcade rally through Farmington Hills.

This month, Anil Eravathri of Clinton Township won a seat in the state assembly for Andhra Pradesh with another party, said his business partner Sagar Reddy of Canton.

The activity extends to a broad range of countries. A Mexican opposition leader campaigned three years ago in southwest Detroit and marched in the March 2006 immigration rally in Detroit. In March, Moshe Feiglin, head of the right-wing Israeli faction Manhigut Yehudit in the Likud party, spoke at local synagogues to raise money.

“The immediate ultimate goal is to raise funds for our activities in Israel,” Feiglin said.

Family ties

Iraqi Americans have voted at centers in metro Detroit in two major elections during the past four years and have played a significant role in Iraq’s emerging democracy. A Warren man, Hikmat Hakeem, was elected in 2005 to represent Iraqi Christians. And in 2000, Ali Bazzi of Dearborn was elected to Lebanon’s parliament.

Beyond emotional ties, there are strong economic and social connections that lead immigrants to get involved. Many immigrants have investments in foreign countries. In the town of Bint Jbeil, for example, the civic center was almost entirely built with money from Lebanese Americans from Michigan.

Another factor is family ties. Immigrants such as Haddad still have relatives living in their native lands and have a vested interest in making sure the countries’ political futures are secure.


Questions of loyalty


But the participation in foreign elections may increase in coming years. In 2013, Lebanese Americans, including those born in the United States, will have the ability to vote inside the United States, Chedid said. And Pakistan is considering allowing expatriates to vote in future elections, said Chaudhry Farrukh, with the U.S. branch of the ruling People’s Party of Pakistan.


One area of potential controversy are elections involving a foreign government or a political party with which the U.S. government has tense relations. In Lebanon, Hizballah–which is on the United States’ list of terrorist groups–is part of the opposition coalition. And some metro Detroiters may vote at a local Islamic center for the elections in Iran, which doesn’t have diplomatic relations with the United States.

Still, ties to native lands run deep. And some see no problem with being politically active outside the United States, arguing they can help bring together countries and cultures.

“We can be excellent Americans,” Chedid told Lebanese Americans in Dearborn. “And we can, of course, help the country of our ancestors.”

Rules on voting in foreign elections

The policies for participating in foreign elections vary from country to country. Here’s a look at some of them.

Lebanon–Lebanese Americans, even those who were born in the United States , can vote in elections in Lebanon, provided they cast their ballots while in their native land and have a Lebanese ID card, say local Lebanese Americans. {snip}

Iraq–In recent years, thousands of Iraqi Americans have voted at sites in metro Detroit for Iraqi elections. {snip}

India–Some people in metro Detroit and the United States campaigned in India’s national and regional elections. A few ran in contested races.

Iran–In 2005, some Iranian Americans voted at centers in the United States, including one in Michigan, for Iran’s presidential election.