When President Vicente Fox meets a group of U.S. residents in Mexico this week, Orange County restaurateur Carlos Olamendi will be among them, lobbying for immigrants' rights.
The Republican from Laguna Niguel wants immigrants like himself to have the right to vote in Mexican elections and to be able to cross the border freely. But he opposes government assistance, such as welfare or housing subsidies, to immigrants and others. Instead of invoking the name of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who tried to crack down on illegal immigration during his tenure in the 1990s, Olamendi says Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are his role models.
He promotes a U.S. immigration policy that he said "will allow immigrants to pull themselves up instead of relying on the welfare model," a term he uses to refer to the network of government and social service agencies in the United States that give assistance to the poor.
Olamendi has become a regular at meetings with legislators in Mexico City and Washington, pushing for measures to give Mexican immigrants a greater voice in the two countries. Immigrants should be able to vote in Mexico because they provide one of the greatest sources of foreign exchange through remittances to family members, he contends.
Although some may view his positions as contradictory, Olamendi says he is living his beliefs. He invests in U.S. restaurants that sell food made from his mother's recipes. He also has a capital investment project to provide companies with credit in Mexico.
To critics who wonder how he can simultaneously salute the White House and Mexico's presidential seat of power, Los Pinos, he quips, "We are not going home. We are already here. That's the new reality. We [immigrants] are a thread tying two nations together."
Olamendi and his group, the National Council of Mexican American Professionals and Business Leaders, have repeatedly visited Mexico City to push for a law that would allow emigrants to vote by absentee ballot.
This week, they are taking nearly 100 people to meet with Fox, congressmen, election officials and cabinet members, said Omar de la Torre, director of Mexico's federal Office of Migrant Assistance. The group has advocated for voting rights before. Now, however, it has Fox's support. The Mexican legislature has yet to back a proposal.
In 1998, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies passed a law allowing Mexicans outside the country to vote in the 2006 presidential election, but the Senate did not approve the measure. The law did not specify how migrants, some of whom obtained so-called dual nationality after becoming American citizens, could vote, and the issue was never formally taken up again.
Olamendi, 46, came to the United States illegally as a teenager and worked in restaurants, earning $2.25 an hour. He received a law degree in Mexico, then returned to the United States illegally to be near his dying mother.
He followed in the footsteps of his brother, who had opened a restaurant in Capistrano Beach in 1973, and opened his own Olamendi's in Laguna Beach in 1985. He later sold it to a sister. He became a legal U.S. resident through the 1986 amnesty law, and later sought citizenship.
Now a father of two children, ages 7 and 12, he owns Olamendi Express restaurants in Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, as well as larger Olamendi's restaurants in San Clemente and Phoenix.
In 1999, he started COR International, a capital financing company that offers U.S. financing to Mexican firms at lower rates than are available in Mexico.
Closer to home, Olamendi has invested in three immigration counseling centers in Santa Ana, Fresno and Salinas. The centers help immigrants regularize their U.S. status, for a fee.
Olamendi's persistent attention to Mexican immigrants and their culture has not gone unnoticed. Recently, he was one of 36 people nominated by President Bush to the Presidential Advisory Committee on Arts and Culture for the John F. Kennedy Performing Arts Center. Members serve as long as Bush is president.
Olamendi says he owes his success to Reagan, who was president when the immigration amnesty was approved, and to Republican legislators whom he lobbied for immigration laws to give Mexican families the ability to get residency for their family members.
"I was fortunate to get residency through amnesty," Olamendi said. "Your life changes so drastically.... I realized that our community must be legitimized for people to get ahead."