Mexican Campaign Trail Now Reaches U.S. Cities
'No One Can Afford to Ignore Us'
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MEXICO CITY -- Frank De Avila, insurance agent and political activist,
stumps for candidates running for office in two countries. He knocks on
doors in his
Chicago neighborhood, passing out literature for his favorite American candidates. He also coordinates thousands of Mexican immigrants across the Midwest, whose
phone calls and economic muscle support candidates for mayor, governor and president here in the homeland that he left 35 years ago.
"We used to be invisible to the Mexican government and the American
government," De Avila said. "Now we are very attractive, politically and
both of them. No one can afford to ignore us anymore."
The fast-growing number of Mexicans living in the United States, many
of whom are citizens of both countries, has created a political bidding
Republicans and Democrats for their support. President Bush recently has led the way, sweet-talking them in two languages. At the same time, the once-ignored
Mexicans also are being romanced by the Mexican government. They have become so influential that it is now political suicide in many mayoral and gubernatorial
races in Mexico not to campaign in the United States as well as at home.
Mexican law forbids political fundraising abroad, but the immigrants
are still influential. Not only do they counsel relatives back home how
to vote, but they also hold
meetings to plot campaign strategy -- even crafting American-style ad slogans -- for campaigns many miles south of their California or Illinois front lawns.
Mexican President Vicente Fox has addressed huge crowds of his countrymen
in a dozen different U.S. cities since he was elected last year. Last month
he again promised to get them something they have long sought: the right to vote in the next Mexican presidential race without leaving the United States.
If that happens -- and most analysts say the question is when, not if -- Mexicans north of the border could become pivotal in presidential elections in two nations.
"People up here are getting more interested in participating in Mexican
politics now that Mexico is finally changing for the better, politically
and economically," said
Eduardo Rivera, 31, a Colorado Springs, Colo., plasterer who runs a "hometown club" for immigrants from Zacatecas state in central Mexico. "We'd like to be able
to vote to send a message that we like the change."
The emergence of U.S.-based Mexicans as political darlings has a lot to do with new U.S. census figures.
They show explosive growth in the number of those with Mexican heritage
now totaling more than 20.6 million, including more than 8 million who
were born in
"They're the new soccer moms," said Mark Krikorian, who heads the Washington-based
Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization favoring tighter
controls on immigration. "In 1970, there were 800,000 Mexicans here and in 2000 there were 8 million. Any politician is going to go hunting where the ducks are."
Mexican citizens abroad have the right to vote, but must return to Mexico to cast their ballots.
During last year's presidential elections, special booths were set up
on the Mexican side of the border to accommodate thousands of immigrants
who returned to
vote. But that trip is expensive and difficult. And for the estimated 3 million to 4.5 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States, returning home to vote means
another dangerous and costly border crossing. So they don't vote anywhere.
Neither U.S. nor Mexican law forbids dual citizens from voting in both
nations. No one knows exactly how many Mexicans living in the United States
eligible to vote in Mexico.
But it is estimated that the vast majority of the Mexican-born residents
of the United States could be eligible, including those with dual nationality,
and undocumented immigrants.
All political parties here in principle support making it easier for
Mexican citizens living abroad to vote. But some analysts predicted that
Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until Fox took office in December, would block the initiative in Congress.
Many who left Mexico did so with sour feelings about the PRI's seven
decades of economic and political management. There are also countless
difficult details: Who
would be able to vote, and where would they do it? Who would count the ballots, and how would they safeguard against fraud? Would Mexican voters in Madrid
have the same access as those in Milwaukee?
"It's not a complex political issue, it's a logistical one," said Enrique
Jackson, president of the Mexican Senate and a leading PRI member. "I think
abroad should be able to vote in their presidential elections, because a good number of them continue to have links with their country; they come and go."
By allowing U.S.-based Mexicans to cast their ballots without crossing
the border, Fox could create a powerful new expatriate voter bloc in addition
to the 60
million registered voters in Mexico.
It would not help him personally, because by law he cannot succeed himself
when his term expires in 2006. But it could help his party if the expatriates
Mexican groups all over the United States will be meeting to discuss
the issue in coming months. Mexican legislators plan to visit several U.S.
cities this fall to hear
expatriate views on the vote issue.
Politicians from both nations have been flying across the border in
recent months as if it were no more unusual than commuting to work. The
month after Bush was
sworn in he jetted down to Mexico for his first foreign trip as president.
Next month, he will host his first White House state dinner in honor of Fox.
The Mexican president has been invited to address a joint session of
Congress, whose members have been tripping over one another on official
visits to Mexico this
Mexican political candidates are even more frequent fliers to the United States.
Ricardo Monreal, the Zacatecas governor and a likely presidential candidate in 2006, has stumped this summer among U.S.-based Mexicans.
He is following in the footsteps of Fox, who flew to the United States just two months before his election.
Even mayoral candidates from the tiniest towns in Puebla, Zacatecas
and Michoacan, states that have sent vast numbers of immigrants to the
United States, are
campaigning in U.S. cities where their old neighbors have settled.
A lot of pent-up political activism was released when the PRI era ended.
For many years, dissenting against the powerful ruling party was seen as
pointless. But in the
new political climate, some from up north are even coming home to run for office.
Andres Bermudez, a successful California tomato farmer for three decades,
was elected mayor last month in his home town of Jerez in Zacatecas state,
opponent who also lived in the United States. But the idea of the same person being politically active in two nations, particularly voting in both places, makes some
"It's a terrible idea. It divides one's loyalty if you are able to vote
in Mexico and the United States," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico specialist
from the College of
William & Mary in Virginia.
Roberto Garza, a Chicago businessman who flies home to Monterrey, Mexico every couple of months, said friends in Mexico recently challenged him:
"Why should we allow you to vote for someone we have to live with?"
Garza replied that he and others were forced to leave Mexico for economic
reasons and have
buoyed the Mexican economy with the billions of dollars that they send home each year. "We think we deserve to be involved," he said.
Garza has a lucrative business in Chicago selling prepaid phone cards to Mexicans who want to call home.
Last year, he got Fox to record a little campaign pitch. So each time
one of his customers used a card, they heard Fox's voice promoting himself
as the candidate of
Garza said there were millions of those calls -- advertising he gave to Fox without charge. "It was my two cents worth, to help Mexico," he said.
Garza also said he persuaded 48 family members in Mexico to vote for
Fox. They had grown apathetic about politics during the PRI era. "But,"
he said, "I told them
it's a different game altogether now."