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PORT CHESTER, New York (Reuters) - A dispute over voting rights reminiscent of the U.S. civil rights era has broken out in this New York town, where the federal government has thrust itself into the debate and a judge suspended an election.
The U.S. Justice Department told the village of Port Chester to rewrite its election laws because they have denied Hispanics a seat in the local government, and the all-white board is fighting back.
At issue is whether Port Chester is violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a hallmark of the black struggle for equal rights, by insisting its board of trustees be elected by a villagewide vote.
Although they make up 46 percent of Port Chester's population, no Hispanic has been elected to the board governing the town of 28,000 people. The Justice Department sued Port Chester in December, after a complaint by Cesar Ruiz, a Hispanic who made an unsuccessful bid to be a trustee in 2001.
Unlike the turbulent 1950s and 1960s, there are no water cannons or dogs unleashed on protesters, no federal troops. The judge who halted the March 20 election called his action an "extraordinary remedy" that "should not be routinely granted."
Many of the Latino immigrants whose rights are at stake remain at the margins of the debate, whether due to a language barrier, economic hardship or fear of deportation.
The board of trustees of the New York City suburb last year refused to adopt the Justice Department's recommendation to divide the town into districts, which might give Hispanics a better chance to elect one of their own.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson then suspended the March 20 election for two trustee spots, pending a trial on the merits of the Justice Department's recommendation.
Robinson found the government was likely to win at trial, but the board still declined to settle.
"We've never had a problem with our elections or anything else. Now all of a sudden we have the federal government coming here, dictating to us they want us to have districts," said Port Chester Mayor Gerald Logan.
"There's such greater issues that the federal government could be working on, like what we are doing with our borders," he said, a reference the influx of immigrants -- many of them Spanish speakers from Latin America -- into the United States.
Small at 2.4 square miles, Port Chester is largely divided into a mostly white and wealthy north end and a center and south home to many immigrants from across Latin America and their descendants.
It is unclear how many are legal and how many illegal aliens. Relatively low rents and jobs in wealthier surrounding suburbs attract immigrants to Port Chester.
"We immigrants are usually working all the time. We don't have time. To talk to a politician, that means taking time off work, and that makes it harder to pay the rent," said Juan Velazquez, a construction worker from Mexico.
"Some people ... think it's a takeover by Hispanics," said Blanca Lopez, a low-income housing advocate.
"You would think people would learn lessons of the past. Is this Selma, Alabama, in 1950 or is this Port Chester in 2007?" said Lopez, who cites slumlords renting to immigrants as evidence Hispanics suffer from a lack of representation.
Mayor Logan said in time the demographics would tilt in Hispanics' favor and they will dominate the board.
"I talk to some Hispanics who say we're willing to wait because a lot of these people didn't even vote in their country, probably, I'm thinking," Logan said. "They want to move along slowly. They want to understand the system."
Ruiz was not willing to wait.
A Port Chester resident of Peruvian origin, he came in last when he ran for the board of trustees.
He believes his campaign for affordable housing, a health clinic and soccer fields was catching on until he reached the northern part of town. He filed suit claiming a Voting Rights Act violation, and the Justice Department took up his case.
"If you're not part of their clan, they're not going to open the door for you," Ruiz said. "I should have won that election. I definitely want to run again because I feel my election was stolen from me."