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Putting the dual-loyalty myth to rest

July 16, 2006|Sergio Munoz | SERGIO MUnOZ is a former editorial writer for The Times. He is now a contributing editor to the paper, and his weekly syndicated column in Spanish appears in 20 newspapers in 12 countries.

MEXICO'S presidential election hasn't produced a clear-cut winner yet, but it has undercut some conventional political wisdom, with important implications for the immigration debate in the United States.

Right now, many conservatives favor tougher immigration enforcement because they believe the loyalties of Latino immigrants in the U.S. are divided between their native lands and their adopted country. The unprecedented flow of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, the widespread use of Spanish all over the United States, the Mexican-flag-waving marches in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities and the large number of Latin American countries that allow their citizens to hold dual nationality have all contributed to this belief.

Historically, the divided-loyalty argument has been used to demonize non-English-speaking immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian immigrants were the target. World War II saw Japanese Americans sent to internment camps. Now it is Latinos who are being singled out, especially those who hold dual citizenship and can vote in their native countries' elections. Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington, in a 2004 Foreign Policy magazine article, contended that Latinos' reputed divided loyalties "threaten to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures and two languages."

Mexico's government first allowed dual citizenship in 1998, but even before then Mexican leftists had tried to get Mexicans living in the U.S. involved in their native country's political campaigns. "Since the 1980s," Huntington wrote in the same article, "the Mexican government has sought to expand the numbers, wealth and political power of the Mexican community in the U.S. Southwest and to integrate that population with Mexico."

This history gives credence to enforcement-minded conservatives who claim that dual citizenship translates into divided loyalty and a reluctance to assimilate into mainstream American life, even though Mexico prohibits its candidates from campaigning abroad. Currently, nine other Latin American countries -- Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Peru and Uruguay -- allow their citizens to retain their nationality when they become a citizen of another country.

U.S. conservatives probably would argue that proof of Mexicans' divided loyalty would be their eagerness to vote in their country's elections. But the results of this month's presidential election showed no such eagerness. Of the 4 million Mexicans abroad eligible to vote, only about 28,000 of them who cast a vote live in the United States.

For at least two decades, Mexican pundits had forecast that the millions of Mexican voters in the U.S. could decide Mexico's elections. Such expectations were substantially lowered earlier this year when Mexican electoral authorities and the Mexican Congress, fearful of the possible logistical nightmare of counting millions of ballots cast abroad, limited eligible voters to the 4 million Mexican citizens who were already registered. If 400,000 of them voted, these officials said, they would declare their experiment in getting Mexicans abroad to cast ballots a complete success.

The pundits not only badly misjudged how many Mexicans in the United States would turn out, they were wrong about who those voters would pick.

Beginning in the 1980s with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of the Democratic Revolution Party and a former presidential candidate, the Mexican left believed that the Mexican diaspora would be its natural constituency. After all, these Mexicans left their country because of its failure to provide them with jobs and a decent standard of living. Give them an opportunity to vote and they would vote for the radical change called for by the left.

As it turned out, of the 28,000 in the U.S. who cast presidential ballots, 58% voted for Felipe Calderon, the conservative candidate -- and declared winner -- who fervently favors free market economics.

The abysmally low turnout of Mexican voters living in the U.S. should help dispel the stereotypical and prejudiced view that Mexican immigrants are more loyal to their native land than to their new home. That the voters went for Calderon, the candidate of economic entrepreneurialism, also suggests that these Mexicans share his capitalist values and are more in tune with the U.S. free market system than with Mexico's semi-statist economy.

Over time, the pattern of immigrant assimilation in the U.S. is the same. Latin American immigrants have become naturalized U.S. citizens at unprecedented rates since 1986, when a generous provision in a new immigration law granted amnesty to almost 3 million people who were living here illegally.

Yes, many of them remain citizens of their countries of origin. But, as U.S. citizens, they have registered with a political party, voted in U.S. elections and helped elect the children of immigrants to ensure fair political representation for all ethnic and racial groups in the United States.

There will be no comprehensive immigration reform as long as some politicians persist in using the ruse of Latino divided loyalties to crack down on immigration. Although the outcome of the Mexican presidential election is disputed, it should have buried the divided-loyalty myth.

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