Immigrant outreach added to UN trip agenda

September 22, 2008 4:50:44 AM PDT
World leaders used to fly to New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly session, address the world body, conduct some official business, and head home. These days, however, many heads of state are making a stop in immigrant communities in New Jersey and other states a diplomatic priority.

With immigrants wielding more financial and political power in their home countries than ever before, several leaders attending the 63rd session of the General Assembly - which gets under way Tuesday - will visit these shadow constituencies whose financial contributions - and influence over politics both in the U.S. and abroad - continues to grow.

Some plan to give public speeches, others, to meet quietly with community leaders or attend parties where they'll get a chance to meet businessmen, local power brokers or immigrant families who form vital connections between their countries and the United States.

"It does reflect the global change, and the recognition, that the Diaspora and migrants abroad are actually very important to the affairs, economy and politics of what's going on in a particular country," said Joanna Regulska, dean of international programs at the School of Arts and Sciences of Rutgers University. "It is the sort of local-global connection that is needed for many countries around the world."

Rutgers was scheduled to host one such gathering with Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, Sunday at the New Brunswick campus. Regulska said Koroma's decision to give his first public address in the United States in New Jersey - before he speaks before the U.N. body - pays homage to the large Sierra Leonean community that helped him get elected.

When he was running for office, Koroma's campaign stops included cities across his West African nation - and Franklin Township, New Jersey - where 7 percent of the population is Sierra Leonean.

"Talking to this community will have an impact in Sierra Leone, too," Regulska said. "These messages will be carried back to them, and they'll have a sense that the president is valuing this community here."

Thomas Weiss, a City University of New York professor who directs the school's United Nations Intellectual History Project, said the General Assembly has traditionally been a venue that world leaders use to network and generate publicity back home.

As an example, he cited remarks Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez made in 2006, when he took the podium for his General Assembly speech, saying it smelled of sulfur because George W. Bush had been standing there.

"Chavez making comments about Bush and the sulfur was designed to be seen back home," Weiss said. "Or when (Cuban leader Fidel) Castro came to the U.N. (in 1960) and stayed in Harlem to try and make a statement."

Weiss said world leaders still seek to generate international headlines with their U.N. remarks, but they've recently tailored messages for communities living abroad.

"These groups who are members of the Diaspora send money home, and it's easier technology- wise to do so, so these earnings have become far more important, not just in Mexico, but in Sierra Leone, Haiti, Rwanda, and everywhere on earth," Weiss said.

In many countries, remittances from immigrants now outpace foreign aid, or are a leading contributor to a nation's economy. Some nations allow immigrants living abroad to vote in local elections, or contribute money to campaign funds or development projects.

"The importance of these earnings to the former sending country is huge, and because of the size of these Diaspora communities, they've become an important force in local politics, in supporting candidates and in lobbying the U.S. government with regards to foreign policy," Weiss said.

Norberto Curitomai, a leader in Paterson's sizable Peruvian community and a behind-the-scenes fixture in north Jersey politics, has been lobbying the Peruvian Congress to create a seat that would represent Peruvians living outside the country.

"In recent years the Peruvian government has been placing more importance on our community," Curitomai said in Spanish. "Not so much in deeds, but in words, such as the proposal to create a position for Peruvians abroad to be represented in Congress."

Curitomai has hosted many Peruvian government officials in Paterson - a north Jersey city with such a large Peruvian population that there is a foreign consulate - but wishes the president would come and see the neighborhood for himself.

"We are so close by - the largest community of Peruvians in the U.S. just outside Manhattan - they could at least come over and make a quick visit to see the community," he said. "It would be great if they would come, but it hasn't happened so far."

Several community organizations in New Jersey's growing Turkish community are working with their New York counterparts to host a gala dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria next week in honor of Turkey's president Abdullah Gul while he's in town for the U.N. summit.

Osman Oztoprak of Lodi, who is helping organize the event, says it's designed as an opportunity for Gul to connect with influential members of the immigrant community, but also meet Americans who may want to do business with Turkey.

"We're trying to create a medium where they can get together," Oztoprak said. "It wouldn't have happened 10 years ago, because the Turkish community wasn't as visible and organized as we are now."


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