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Democratization Imperils U.S. Latino Empowerment

May 26, 1996|David R. Ayon | David R. Ayon is research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University. Previously, he was associate director of the California-Mexico Project at the USC School of International Relations

Critical to the pace and reach of national campaigns to increase Latino voter registration and participation in U.S. politics is the conversion of millions of immigrants into American citizens. Historically, Mexicans, who account for more than 60% of Latino immigrants, have had the lowest naturalization rate of any immigrant group. But several factors, including the fear of reduced opportunities for non-citizens, spurred by Proposition 187, and citizenship campaigns by Latino organizations, combined to produce record rates of naturalization in 1995.

Will the huge pool of Mexican immigrants continue to become citizens at current rates and make their numbers felt at the polls in future elections? Or will their pace of naturalization fall to previous levels? The answer may lie in the course of political reform in Mexico. Ironically, one reform to boost the democratization of Mexican politics could seriously jeopardize Latino empowerment in America at a time when Latino electoral successes here are mounting and may be posed for a breakthrough.

Last month, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) reached agreement on a package of reforms to bring about fully fair and competitive elections in Mexico. The proposals have been submitted to Mexico's Congress, where they are being turned into legislation. Now that the more conservative National Action Party (PAN) has rejoined the political reform process, a deeper democratization of Mexico's electoral system may be just weeks away.

In a quiet but radical shift of positions during the negotiations, the PRI accepted the PRD's demand that, for the first time ever, Mexican citizens living abroad be allowed to vote in Mexico's presidential elections. This "right" would mostly apply to the 4 million to 5 million adult Mexican immigrants residing in the United States--as long as they remained Mexican citizens. Certainly, no Mexican presidential aspirant or party could afford to ignore so many potential votes if this reform is enacted into law.

Imagine the consequences of Mexican presidential campaigns migrating north: registration drives, fund raising, party building, advertising, grass-roots organizing, campaign tours, debates--all premised upon Mexican immigrants retaining their citizenship in order to vote in Mexico's elections. These all-out national campaigns could not help but undermine the efforts of U.S. Latino organizations to naturalize and register Mexicans to vote in the United States.

What could be worse for Latino empowerment? Here's what: re-Mexicanization efforts (Mexican law enables former citizens to quickly recover their citizenship once they renounce U.S. or other foreign citizenship); the widening of divisions among Latino leaders over who to support in Mexico's elections; ugly conflicts among the camps of rival candidates disrupting communities; drawn-out controversies and protests over the conduct of campaigns, the fairness of voting and the outcome--with some of those disputes ending up in U.S. courts.

How could Mexican politicos knowingly embark on a process that could undermine Latino political success in the United States and provide more fodder to Mexico bashers and anti-immigrant groups in the United States? The main reason is that opposition activists and leaders, who have long campaigned for the right of Mexicans living abroad to vote in Mexico's elections, desperately want to bring political change to Mexico. They regard their sympathizers residing in the United States as political and economic exiles--not as immigrants.

Mexican authorities, furthermore, have been hard-pressed to win opposition support and legitimacy for their elections. While the PAN was out of the reform negotiations because of a locally disputed election, the PRD found itself in a powerful bargaining position to press its demands. Finally, Mexican officials have appeared increasingly weary of resisting the dogged demand for voting-from-abroad; after all, many other countries, including the United States, allow it.

U.S. Latino leaders and organizations are loathe to directly dispute the exile mentality and get into a conflict with vociferous immigrant activists. If the agreed-to reform becomes law, however, they will be unable to avoid an unprecedented contest for the hearts and minds of Mexican immigrants.

Apparently, neither Mexican decision-makers nor U.S. Latino leaders have thought through what Mexican presidential campaigning in U.S. Latino communities would be like, and what consequences it could have. They need to start right away. Mexico's next presidential election is expected to be a bitterly contested turning point--and it will coincide with the U.S. presidential election.

Latino political participation and representation at the local, state and congressional levels has rapidly grown in the 1990s. Indeed, the growing Latino caucus in the Assembly stands a good chance of being able to pick its next speaker, should the Democrats win back the majority. And, at long last, the election of a Latino statewide official in California seems only an electoral cycle or two away.

But the reform entitling Mexicans living abroad to vote in their presidential elections could halt this progress. The biggest campaign rallies in Los Angeles in the year 2000 could be organized by neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, but by the PRI, the PRD or the PAN--setting back U.S. Latino empowerment efforts a whole generation or more.*

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