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No Loud Voice for Expats in Mexican Vote

Immigration is an issue that affects them, but relatively few citizens are exercising their new right to cast ballots and speak up from abroad.

January 14, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — When election season opens Thursday, Mexico's three leading presidential candidates are expected to take turns bashing Washington's tough new immigration reform proposals like revelers at a pinata party.

But those most affected, including millions of Mexicans living abroad illegally, will have little influence on the debate.

Less than 1% of the 10 million or more Mexican adults living in the United States are expected to cast absentee ballots in their country's presidential election this year, all but sitting out the contest despite high stakes on both sides of the border.

After a political battle that took years, Mexico's July 2 election is the first open to expatriates. Prospects of a sizable emigrant vote had triggered both hope and fear in a country struggling toward modern democracy. Five million absentee voter forms were printed.

Officials of the Federal Electoral Institute said Friday, however, that they had received only 17,000 vote-by-mail applications, about 10,000 of those from the U.S. With two days left in the registration drive that began Oct. 1, the number was not likely to grow much.

"The vote abroad is a failed effort," said Leo Zuckerman, a Mexican political analyst. "However, it's a first experience and the only thing that's left to hope is that we'll learn from this experience."

Apathy, poor planning, scant publicity, cumbersome procedures and a ban on campaign appearances outside the country will all but sideline the 15% of Mexico's electorate who live abroad, primarily in the U.S., say experts in both countries.

"This demonstrates that the vote in Mexico is not a priority for most Mexicans living in the United States," said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "In general, the majority of Mexicans over there are more worried about their connection to the United States, more worried about their lifestyle over there than by Mexican politics."

Many Mexicans in large immigrant neighborhoods of Southern California, Chicago and Texas didn't register because for most people it meant losing a day of work.

"How many Americans would ever vote if they had to go in person to some government office, obtain an application, fill it out, go to a post office and return it by registered mail?" said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

In June, Mexico's Congress approved a version of the new law that reflected mixed feelings about giving the vote to millions of citizens who have left the country.

The electoral commission said presidential hopefuls risked being fined or disqualified if they visited Los Angeles or other U.S. cities, because the law forbids public appearances or fund-raising outside Mexico.

"The legislation was made restrictive because of disagreements among the major parties," Cornelius said. "Each party feared it would be disadvantaged in an unfettered competition for the expatriate vote."

An estimated 4 million Mexicans in the United States hold voter credentials. Supporters of the vote abroad had hoped that at least 400,000 absentee ballots would be cast, a small but potentially significant number in what is expected to be a close race.

Even without the full participation of expatriates, the neck-and-neck campaign this year is likely to add immigration reform to Mexico's perennial issues of crime and the economy.

According to polls, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador maintains a slight edge for his Democratic Revolution Party.

After registering his candidacy this week, the leftist candidate accused President Vicente Fox of lacking "the moral or political authority" to fight legislation approved last month by the U.S. House of Representatives that proposes putting up additional border fencing and designating illegal immigration as a felony. The bill will go to the Senate next month.

Former Energy Secretary Felipe Calderon, who has moved in polls from a distant third to within striking distance of Lopez Obrador, registered Wednesday as a candidate of the National Action Party. He took the opportunity to challenge U.S. lawmakers, calling for a "fight against the building of a wall that offends us and against legislation that considers migrants criminals."

Roberto Madrazo, who is representing the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has to wait until he registers Sunday to speak as a candidate.

Fox, who by law cannot run again, has tried since his 2000 election to forge closer ties to citizens abroad. These mostly blue-collar workers sent home about $20 billion last year, propping up the country's economy but showing little apparent interest in its national politics.

Voter-drive veterans in the U.S. said Mexico's electoral institute was hobbled because it had only three months to prepare.

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