August 16, 2005

Immigrants in U.S. new swing voters in Mexico election

By Alonso Soto

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Chicago businessman and Mexican
immigrant Timoteo Manjarrez recently decided to run for mayor
in his hometown of Teloloapan, a poor city in the South of
Mexico where he returned to live six years ago.

"I always dreamed of coming back to my roots. Now we are
going to get this city out of the backwardness it is submerged
in," the 42-year-old Manjarrez said in a telephone interview.

In July, eager to raise support for his election effort,
the successful restaurateur turned to an unlikely group of
people who could have a big influence on how his constituents
vote -- his former neighbors in Chicago's Little Village and
Pilsen neighborhoods.

Two months ago, Mexico's government gave its citizens
living abroad the right to vote in the nation's next
presidential election in July 2006.

About 4 million Mexicans in the United States are believed
to be eligible to vote in Mexico's presidential election next
year. Analysts say this new bloc of voters could transform
Mexico's political landscape and will surely be an influential
force in the presidential race, although it may take more than
one election cycle for their full impact to be seen.

"Mexicans abroad, who were a forgotten group in the past,
are now a key to the political and economic future of that
country," said Alejandro Portes, an immigration expert at
Princeton University. "They could be the next swing vote."

Although emigres cannot vote in local elections, Manjarrez
and other local candidates are reaching out to the estimated 12
million Mexicans living in the United States to ask them to
sway voters back home. Manjarraz visited Chicago, held a news
conference and met with immigrant groups to promote his

Candidates in local races are asking Mexican emigres to
urge relatives back home -- who receive billions of dollars in
remittances from family members abroad -- to support their

Employees of Manjarrez' three restaurants and two catering
businesses in Chicago are collecting signatures on petitions
supporting his mayoral bid and plan to send them home in hopes
of swaying voters.

The influence of immigrants on Mexico has largely been
exerted by the remittances. Mexicans living and working in the
United States channeled $16 billion back to their families in
Mexico in 2004. This was Mexico's second-largest source of
income after revenues generated by oil exports.

"We never had the right to vote, but we had the money,"
said Martin Unzueta, who heads the left-leaning Democratic
Revolutionary Party in Illinois. "We hope that politicians will
pay more attention to immigrants' needs."


With their emergence as a voting bloc, immigrants could
gain leverage to push for immigration law changes long sought
on the U.S. side of the border.

But while welcoming the election law, critics say it leaves
many hurdles for prospective immigrant voters: They can only
vote in the presidential election, and they cannot contribute
directly to candidates.

Manjarrez recently spent several days making the political
rounds in Chicago's Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods,
considered the heart of the city's Mexican community that is
the second-largest in the United States after Los Angeles'.

The streets bustled with crowds dipping into Latino
restaurants, supermarkets and music stores festooned with
Mexican flags and advertising banners written in Spanish.

While the Mexican law expressly forbids political parties
from campaigning in the United States, stepped-up organizing
efforts are evident here.

"We are now entering a new stage of Mexican politics," said
Rodolfo Hernandez Guerrero, director of the Center for
U.S.-Mexico Studies of the University of Texas at Dallas. "This
will be a great political laboratory."


The election law requires immigrants with a voter
identification card to mail a request to Mexico City for an
absentee ballot, which will be mailed out early next year.

Roughly 4 million Mexicans in the United States have the
proper credentials allowing them to vote. Of those, one out of
10 will likely cast a ballot, Mexican election officials have

But a recent survey by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic
Center found that 87 percent of Mexican immigrants said they
planned to vote in next year's election.

Political organizers cautioned that voting here could be
lackluster after so many years where immigrants were left out
of the process. With as many as half of U.S. Mexican immigrants
in the country illegally, they may be wary of voting for fear
of attracting notice.

Others may feel resentful of their treatment by some
Mexican politicians in the past.

During the 1980s, the long-ruling Institutional
Revolutionary Party often vilified emigrants who were said to
have fled the country at the first sign of an economic crisis.

"They used to call us traitors," said Salvador Pedroza, the
president of Mexico's ruling National Action party in Illinois.
"For many immigrants, next year's election is at the bottom of
their priorities."