BBC News
March 31, 2004

Mexican migrants' growing influence

By Javier Lizarzaburu
BBC Spanish American service

"We are powerful enough to make a difference," says Guadalupe Gomez, talking about the influence migrants have in Mexican politics.

Originally from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, he's lived north, in the US, for more than 40 years. He is currently president of the Federation of Zacatecan Associations.

The migrants' influence comes with the massive amounts of money they send back home.

Despite the relative stagnation of the US economy, this flow of money keeps growing, according to recent data. In 2003 it increased by 35% - the total amount sent that year to Mexico was more than $13bn.

Remittances from Mexicans in the US have become one of Mexico's most important sources of income - second only to oil and surpassing the traditional tourism industry.

According to Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington "remittances have probably benefited Mexico more than Nafta" (the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico).

Electoral issue

The flow of money from the US to Latin America largely exceeds the money from foreign aid that the region receives.

For many, remittances have become a form of foreign aid that helps the families back home to alleviate poverty, spur investment and achieve higher standards of living.

But critics argue that dependence on remittances can impair local initiative and create no incentives for people to move forward.

However, the issue is not just about families anymore.

Remittances are fast becoming a new phenomenon, influencing foreign and domestic policies in different countries, including the US - the main source of remittances worldwide.

Experts say the recent immigration proposals submitted by US President George W Bush, to allow migrants to work legally in the US for a limited number of years, are a direct response to the growing influence of Latinos in that country.

For Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, the issue was paramount during his electoral campaign.

He made migration a cornerstone of his political agenda. He even called migrants the new "heroes".

Quite a change from the days, not so long ago, when those who chose to live with "the enemy" - as they used to call the US in many parts of the Mexico - were called "traitors".

Ghost town

The Mexican state of Zacatecas, once a place rich in silver but now one of the poorest areas in the country, is illustrative.

More Zacatecans live now in Los Angeles than in the city of Zacatecas.

The State Governor, Ricardo Monreal, acknowledges that "their economic influence is huge and their political clout as a consequence of that is huge too".

"It is thanks to them that I became state governor," says Mr Monreal.

Remittances also have social and human implications.

In the village of Jomulquillo, a couple of hours from the city of Zacatecas, what hits you as soon as you arrive is the silence.

One of the few locals remaining there says that at the moment there are 80 people living in the village - 300 live in Los Angeles.

With the empty houses, the closed windows and locked doors, this feels like a ghost town.

But the pain of families being separated is somewhat compensated by these remittances that, in the case of Zacatecas, not only help the relatives but also their villages of origin.

Crucial role

As part of a new strategy, the Mexican authorities have decided to match the money sent by migrants with local, regional and federal money, in order to build roads, schools and medical centres.

From being called "traitors who chose to live with the enemy", Mexico's emigrants have now gained a level of influence and respectability unheard of in the country.
According to Guadalupe Gomez "a lot of politicians are taking notice of our influence". And, he adds, they have to do more to make migrants participate in the decision-making process.

It is not surprising therefore that last year, in a historic move, the Zacatecas' state legislature voted in favour of a allowing migrants living in the US to stand for political office.

Similar things are occurring in other Latin American countries.

The recent elections in El Salvador show just how much this issue is affecting politics.

Experts say that the right-wing Tony Saca won the elections largely due to last minute television ads warning that a victory for the left-wing candidate would have a negative impact on US-Salvador relations.

One consequence of this, the ads warned, would be massive deportations that in turn would put remittances at risk.

Analysts believe that because nearly 30% of the population depends on the money sent from the US, this twist in the electoral campaign became a decisive element in Mr Saca's victory.

If remittances continue to grow as they have in the last few years, migrants are likely to become crucial players in the politics of their countries of origin and not only in the economy.