Migrant Power

Mexican workers are finding their voice in the States. Will they be heard in their homeland?

A demonstrator carries a Mexican flag 

MEXICO CITY—As the first springtime blossoms burst forth across America between February and April, so did a wave of Latino activism that helped to reveal the political potential of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants—the majority of them Mexican—living in the United States. Immigrants may be finding their political footing in the United States, but most are detached from the July 2 Mexican presidential election, a political process in which they also have an important stake.

The immigration impasse can be solved only if both countries share the responsibility of taking action. Just as the United States has struggled to recognize how essential immigrant labor is the economy, Mexico has struggled to accept that it has failed to create jobs that pay enough to keep millions of its young and able-bodied population at home.

The current president, Vicente Fox, regularly touts migrants and the remittances they send home as “heroic.” (Remittances pumped $20 billion into the Mexican economy in 2005—third only to oil and tourism as a source of national revenue.) But Fox, who cannot run for office again, and the three leading candidates for the presidency, seem woefully apathetic about the steady hemorrhaging of workers to the United States. “No country can develop on labor exports,” says Xochitl Bada, a Mexican sociologist who studies the impact of remittances at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s not a development model, because those remittances could end in 30 years.”

Bada and other economists and sociologists studying remittance flows have noted that migrants tend to stop sending money back to Mexico when they bring their families to the United States. Undocumented status heightens the risk of returning and increases the chance that migrants will send for their kin.

Many development experts have urged countries like Mexico to put remittances to productive use by encouraging migrants and their families to invest in small businesses to fill the job void. Mexico seemed to be leading the way with its “three for one” program, in which the federal, state, and municipal governments would match donations pooled by migrants in the United States. That is, until funding for the program was cut by the Mexican Congress by nearly 50 percent this year. Projects already under way in some of the poorest regions—like the construction of schools, roads, health centers, potable water systems, and electricity networks—now lack the funds for completion, since the government defaulted on its side of the deal.

The reasons for the unraveling support for “three for one” are political. It’s an election year, and Mexican lawmakers from states with low rates of migration are less supportive of the program. But ambivalent attitudes toward the migrants have also sidetracked the program’s mission.

Mexicans who’ve chosen to stay home view their countrymen who work abroad with a mixture of admiration, envy, and resentment. In small rural towns where the majority of the men have said adios and headed north, the distant breadwinners are often glorified for risking their lives and taking backbreaking jobs to support their families. But in other places, the urban middle and upper classes, who have little reason to leave, make cracks about the pochos—a term, meaning “faded,” that is derogatory slang for Mexicans who’ve become gringo-ized and betrayed their heritage.

A rejection of migrants’ right to political power was at the core of legislation passed by the Mexican Congress in June 2005 that established the right to absentee voting, albeit under very strict conditions. To register to vote in the July 2006 presidential elections, Mexican citizens living abroad must have a valid voter registration card issued in Mexico. Those without the card must travel to Mexico, apply for one, and then wait up to two weeks for the ID to be issued.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, which published a survey in February on absentee voting in the Mexican election, the rules excluded 7 million of the 10 million Mexican citizens living in the United States. (This 10 million includes undocumented and legal residents of the United States, as well as those with dual citizenship.) In the end, only about 35,000 successfully registered.

“It should have been easier to register,” says Bada. “But it was a compromise for the nationalistic hard-liners who knew that if they gave out the vote to the migrants, they would have considerable influence over the elections.” One out of eight adults born in Mexico now lives in the United States.

Despite the fact that so few migrants will be voting, they may still be able to exert influence by telling their families back in Mexico whom to support. In many families with relatives in the United States, sending home money elevates the migrants’ status.

So far, none of the three candidates—Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the left-leaning candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party; Felipe Calderón, the conservative candidate for Fox’s National Action Party; or Roberto Madrazo, the candidate for the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party—has made migration much of a campaign issue. But a debate on June 6 could help to clarify the candidates’ positions.

Ultimately, migrants will likely be distracted from the election by U.S. immigration debate and the fate of the Mexican team in soccer’s World Cup. But the July 2 vote will be the first big test of how the largest diaspora in the Americas finds a way—or misses an opportunity—to flex its political muscle.