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THE TIMES POLL : Mexicans Ambivalent About U.S., Poll Finds

September 14, 1989|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans are as ambivalent as ever in their feelings toward the United States, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

At least one in five Mexicans holds out hope of moving to the United States in the next year, despite the perception that tougher immigration laws make it more difficult to find work.

But also according to the poll, one-third of all Mexicans believe that they will never leave Mexico, no matter how bad things got. Again, asked specifically where they would like to live in the United States, a third said "nowhere."

Mexican immigration expert Jorge Bustamante, president of the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, said, "That is not surprising for me, but it is surprising for people in the United States listening to the Border Patrol suggesting that it is the dream of every Mexican to live in the United States."

The nationwide poll of 1,835 Mexicans was conducted in August on a wide range of political and economic issues. Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis said it had a margin of error of three percentage points in either direction.

Economic opportunity is still the main attraction of the United States for 41% of those polled. Others said they appreciate the culture, democracy and equality.

Drugs and discrimination are perceived as the major drawbacks to the United States. Many Mexicans also find their northern neighbors patronizing and domineering, according to the poll.

Six percent of those polled said they are "very likely" to move to the United States in the next year. While it is impossible to know how many will actually emigrate, 6% of Mexico's population would equal nearly 5 million people. Another 16% said they were "fairly" likely to move north in the next year.

Nearly one-fourth of those who said they were in some degree likely to move to the United States picked California as their destination, and 14% specifically chose Los Angeles.

Bustamante said the numbers on emigration reflect "wishful thinking," rather than reality.

"You're talking about attitudes, not real behavior. That may be how many people would go if you assume that it is easy, but not when you know that what it takes to get to the United States is increasingly expensive and difficult," he said. "A lot of those who say they are going may not make it."

Bustamante estimates that there are currently 1.75 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States, about the same number as last year, before new U.S. immigration reform laws went into effect. But U.S. officials disagree, saying illegal immigration appears to have declined.

The new U.S. laws that imposed sanctions on the employers of illegal aliens have discouraged illegal immigration, 62% of those interviewed said. Sixty percent said they believed that it is now harder to find work in the United States.

Almost one-third of those interviewed said they had already visited the United States, and 42% said they have relatives living there. But only 7% said they or someone in their household receives financial support from relatives in the United States.

On the home front, only 24% of those polled were convinced that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was honestly elected in the July, 1988, national election, whereas 73% were doubtful or convinced that he was not.

At the same time, however, the vast majority approves of the job Salinas has done as president. Seventy-nine percent said they have a favorable impression of Salinas, 78% approve of his handling of the economy and 67% say he is fighting corruption.

The country is far more divided in its opinion of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. Less than one-third of those polled said they sympathize with the official party, which claims to represent a majority of Mexicans.

Forty-three percent said they believed that Salinas was doing little to reform the party that has ruled the country for six decades, compared to 42% who said he was trying. Mexicans were evenly split on the question of whether it is even possible to modernize the PRI.

Mexicans seem to expect change in their political system, but they are uncertain how it will come about. Nearly half of those polled said they expect opposition parties to have more political power in the future, but in another question, half said they believe that there is a possibility of armed revolution in Mexico within five years. Because there is currently no guerrilla movement in Mexico, that view apparently reflects an awareness of Mexico's violent history and concern over the electoral process.

Corruption is still a major national issue, the poll found. Twenty-eight percent said they had been victims of corruption in the last year, and two-thirds said they distrust the police. Although Salinas has gone after high-level corruption, many suspect that he would not arrest his true political friends.

Unemployment and the foreign debt are the top problems facing the country, most people said. A majority of Mexicans believe that the landmark agreement between their government and foreign banks to reduce the foreign debt burden will improve the nation's stagnant economy, but they doubt that they will feel the effects personally.

Sixty-two percent of the wealthy said they are better off today than they were six years ago; 37% of the lower classes said they are getting poorer.

A majority of respondents (53%) said the children of their friends and neighbors may now be going hungry. Among the poor, that number jumped to 69%.

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