The Dallas Morning News
Thursday, June 17, 2004

Mexicans abroad feel vote's tug

Some willing to go to greater lengths to take part in elections

By ALFREDO CORCHADO / The Dallas Morning News and ANGEL GONZÁLEZ / Al Día

Manuel Rodela heads to his home state in Mexico next month to cast a ballot for governor in the election, traveling 20 hours by car from his Dallas residence.

It's a priority for the 59-year-old electrician. Manuel Rodela Jr., born and reared in the United States, won't be going along to Zacatecas. He's got other priorities, including a favorite ritual: waiting for Hollywood's annual release of putative summer blockbuster films.

"The big movies come out on July Fourth," explained the 32-year-old, who works for a movie-theater chain.

The different attitudes of father and son underscore the ambivalence many Mexican immigrants in the United States feel about voting in their homeland. And that cultural divide will help determine how many choose to vote from abroad in Mexico's elections, analysts said.

Before embarking this week on a trip to Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit, Mexican President Vicente Fox sent a bill to Congress that would make Mexican immigrants eligible to vote overseas in his country's 2006 presidential elections.

"There will always be a question of loyalty, and the timeless question of 'Where do I really belong?' that will haunt these voters," said Patricia Hamm, an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University who is studying the impact of the vote abroad. "For immigrants, the idea is not so clear-cut yet."

In 1996, Mexico granted its citizens who live in the United States the right to cast absentee ballots, instantly creating 8 million to 11 million likely voters, compared with about 65 million registered voters in Mexico. But eight years later, a balloting mechanism for the immigrants hasn't been created.

For now, immigrants with voting credentials must return to their home states on election day or travel to voting stations on the Mexican side of the border. Many are expected to do just that in Zacatecas, Chihuahua and Durango states, which have elections July 4.

The Fox bill would allow Mexicans abroad to vote in booths, electronically or by standard mail. Congressional approval may come this year.

Many are skeptical

Many immigrants living abroad are skeptical about the impact of their vote.

Saul Herrera, president of the Sombrerete-Potrero Association in Dallas, says there's not enough information in the United States about the next elections in Zacatecas.

"Most of the people from there specially from Sombrerete, a small town in Zacatecas don't have an idea on who are the candidates and which are their proposals. And most of them don't care about it", he said.

Mr. Herrera, who has been living in the United States since 1977, will be in Zacatecas on July 4, the day of the election. But he didn't plan his trip thinking about the election.

"It was just good luck", he said. "Now, I'm checking the Internet to see who is ahead in the race and who has more possibilities to win."

Last year, Mexicans in the United States sent more than $12 billion to their families back home, more foreign income than the country raised from tourism, foreign investment or oil exports. As voters, they would represent up to 15 percent of the Mexican electorate, enough to one day tip the balance in a tight presidential race.

Some experts, including Ms. Hamm and Wayne Cornelius, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, downplay the degree of likely participation. They estimate that as few as 500,000 to 1.5 million people actually might take part in the 2006 election. They said there would not be enough time to get the word out or to allow all interested people to register to vote.

But for veteran immigrant advocates such as Primitivo Rodriguez, it is not the numbers that matter as much as a principle embedded in Mexico's Constitution. It provides for all Mexicans anywhere to be able to vote in their country's elections.

"Even if just one person votes, our fight will be well worth it," said Mr. Rodriguez, who works for the Mexican federal government and is a longtime adviser to immigrant organizations.

Some groups, such as the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, as well as nationalist organizations in Mexico City, oppose granting the right to vote. La Raza frets that the move could divide allegiances among migrants, a group the council is trying to absorb into the U.S. political system.

Meanwhile, support is tepid from the former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which maintains that having an election conceivably decided on foreign soil would be anathema to Mexico's political integrity.

"It's a good start," said Roberto Madrazo, PRI president. "But we have to make sure we don't create first- and second-class citizens. We should all vote the same."

Analysts say, however, that much of the PRI's discomfort is attributable to concern about the party's own political survival.

The PRI is far less popular among migrants in the United States than the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, and would therefore benefit less if those citizens were to vote, said Leticia Calderon, a researcher at the Mora Institute in Mexico City

Some Mexican émigrés choose assimilation in the United States, preferring to leave the politics of their homeland to those there.

Salvador Ruiz Aguilar, of Fort Worth, said he cast his final vote years ago with his feet, when he left for the United States.

Mr. Ruiz is originally from Juchipila, Zacatecas. "I haven't been in Zacatecas for three or four years," he said. "I'm disconnected. It's hard to keep in touch."

Having a say

Others choose to have a say in affairs back home.

Ignacio Reyes, 49, a food vendor at the intersection of East 49th and 2nd streets in New York City, said he wants to return to his home state of Zacatecas to see family and to lobby relatives to vote.

Even some community leaders are against political participation.

"The people that are already here came for a reason," said Mary Domínguez, director of Casa Chihuahua, a Dallas cultural association that reunites immigrants from Chihuahua state. "They have nothing to look for over there,"

Mr. Rodela is an immigrant-rights pioneer of sorts in North Texas. In 1999 he helped organize protests in Dallas against the Mexican government, which started fining expatriates who drove U.S.-licensed cars south of the border. The government ultimately backed down. Mr. Rodela also became a member of the International Coalition for Mexicans Abroad, a leader in the effort to secure the overseas vote. He said he and other like-minded immigrants are driven by a need to repay an economic and political debt to their homeland.

"You don't just cross the border one day and suddenly forget your past, your roots and your country," he said. "Some of us are reminded of our debt on a daily basis."