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Mexican Elections Heating Up -- in U.S.

Times Staff Writer

In 1996, Mexico granted its citizens who live in the United States the right to cast absentee ballots, instantly creating a bloc of nearly 11 million potential voters.

Eight years later, many of those voters, frustrated that a balloting mechanism hasn’t been created, are restless and rallying for action.

Mexican politicians who reluctantly adopted the voting change have delayed its implementation because “they fear us,” said Santa Ana tax preparer and immigrant activist Guadalupe Gomez. “They fear our economic power and they fear our political power.”

Across the U.S., Mexicans are lobbying their homeland politicians to implement the legislation. Their voices are not easily ignored.

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In 2003, as President Vicente Fox points out, Mexicans in the United States sent $12 billion to their families back home -- more foreign income than from tourism, foreign investment or exported oil -- and, as voters, they would represent 15% of the Mexican electorate.

The government wants the absentee-voting system created by July 5, 2005, so Mexicans living in the United States can vote in their 2006 national elections -- a decade after the right was extended to them.

An original 1999 deadline to establish the mechanics of voting absentee passed without action, leaving emigres unable to vote in the 2000 presidential election. Frustrated, hundreds of emigres in California drove to Tijuana to cast ballots.

Eligible absentee voters include those with legal U.S. residency who are still Mexican citizens, and may include undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who have sought dual nationality, a diluted form of dual citizenship.

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The absentee ballot battle is playing out even as other electoral changes are allowing Mexicans living in the U.S., including several in Southern California, to seek state and local offices in their homeland.

To garner support from emigres in recognition of their new voting power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, conducted its first political forum at a Huntington Park meeting hall Friday and Saturday.

And Mexican consuls from around California are discussing a possible September visit by Fox to Los Angeles that could drum up support for his center-right National Action Party.

Such outreach recognizes the wealth and political might of emigres, both of which politicians want to tap, and reflects the growing phenomenon of borderless politics.

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“What we are seeing is that the right to vote, the right to participate, is not rooted in a geographic place,” said Miguel Moctezuma, a political science professor at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas. “What we are seeing is a social phenomenon born in the waves of emigration.”

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‘It’s Logical’

Rigoberto Marquez, a 33-year-old construction worker who lives in Santa Ana with a work permit, said he is eager to vote in the 2006 presidential election because “we still have our homeland in our hearts. We send money home. It’s logical that we be given a right to vote.”

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Immigrant groups meeting with Mexican politicians have debated various absentee voting mechanisms and, earlier this month, immigrants belonging to the three major political parties collectively urged Mexican legislators to take action.

Officials in Mexico City say they are moving cautiously because their international ballot system would be the largest in the world, with an unknown cost.

Politicians also are weighing how international voting will affect the leading parties, and worry that it may open the door for U.S. interests to influence Mexican politics, said Carlos Navarro, director of international politics for the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico City.

Laura Martinez, a federal legislator who is the PRI liaison to emigres in the United States, said the complexity of the task, not opposition to absentee balloting, has caused the delay. Even within its borders, Mexico lacks an absentee voting system except in its largest cities.

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“It’s a complicated topic. It’s got to be done with a lot of thought,” Martinez said. “We have been watched internationally because of previous problems in our internal electoral system, and there was concern as to how we could do this in the most responsible way. Now, it’s on the front burner and it’s just a matter of time.”

Jesus Martinez Saldana, a political science professor at Cal State Fresno, said more than 14 international absentee voting proposals have been proposed to the Mexican Congress since 1996.

Among them: allowing Mexican citizens with photo ID cards to vote at consulates (rejected for its cost and burden on consular staffs), and voting by Internet (criticized for fraud potential).

Last month, Fox proposed that emigres vote only for president and only if they already had an electoral card issued in Mexico, which many don’t.

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Immigrants were cool to the plan.

The Fox proposal “is a farce,” said Maywood resident Felipe Aguirre, a California representative of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. “This is not the law they promised previously. When [Fox] was running for president, he said he was in favor of the broadest rights for emigrants.”

Emigrants would prefer to register to vote in consulates and vote by mail, as well as by Internet, Aguirre said.

On Saturday, 100 Mexican business and civic leaders in the United States are scheduled to meet in Atlanta to discuss how to encourage Mexico to take action. The group, called the Mexican Institute for Mexicans Abroad, is an advisory panel established by Fox 18 months ago, and includes Gomez, the Santa Ana tax preparer.

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A Hotbed State

The frustration has especially ignited political activism among immigrants from the state of Zacatecas, half of whose 1.2 million natives live in the United States. With social clubs from Alaska to Maine, they are the most organized among emigres from Mexico’s central interior to push for the electoral change.

Last year, the Zacatecas legislature created two seats for emigres in response to lobbying by Mexicans in the United States and because of the election of a Yolo County tomato farmer as mayor of Jerez, Zacatecas, in 2001. The election of Andres Bermudez was overturned because he did not meet residency requirements.

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Two Norwalk men and a Texas woman are among the first immigrants from Mexico to seek the two legislative seats reserved for emigres to the U.S.

On April 30 in Montebello, one of the local immigrants, Roman Cabral, was sworn in as a candidate for the PRI, the first Mexican candidate to receive the oath of his party on U.S. soil.

“This is a historic candidacy,” said Cabral, 50, a father of five who owns a construction firm, a used car lot and a dance hall in California and Oregon. “It will begin in the United States, end in Mexico and represent the real binational nature of our state.”

The other candidates are Manuel de la Cruz, also of Norwalk, representing the Revolutionary Democratic Party, and Dolores Mendivil of Laredo, Texas, of the National Action Party.

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“No matter who gets the seats, at least we will have a greater voice in our state,” said Gomez, a longtime activist in the Zacatecas emigre community. “It’s a real step forward.”

The electoral change also allows any Zacatecas native living in the United States to run for local office. Moctezuma said that, as a result, Bermudez is running again for the mayor’s post in Jerez, and others from the United States, including two from Los Angeles, are running in local elections in the towns of Tepetongo, Apulco, Fresnillo, Momax and Guadalupe.

Victors in local elections will be required to move to Mexico, and state legislative winners will probably shuttle between the two countries, said Cabral.

The north-of-the-border Mexican politics is prompting high-ranking Mexican officials to increase their exposure in the United States. Those attending PRI’s swearing-in of Cabral as a candidate last month included Zacatecas federal legislator Genaro Borrego Estrada and Jose Bonilla Estrada, who is running for governor.

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Cabral said he decided to run for office because Zacatecas “is still home. I cannot forget the place. When we lived there, we worked the land. We say the land got in us and we can’t get it out.”

Zacatecas expatriate Norberto Pilon, a gardener in Santa Ana, said he was excited that emigres might have representation in the state.

“I think it would be better if we could vote, but until then, I think it’s great that we can at least have our concerns heard, particularly since we send money back there,” said Pilon, 38, a father of three who left Zacatecas 15 years ago and sends money to his mother.

“We are part of the society, and we should have a voice.”

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Times researcher Froylan Enciso in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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