Migrant Votes Hot New Commodity in Mexico

U.S. politicians aren’t the only ones courting the Hispanic vote in the United States. Mexico’s leaders are suddenly pursuing the 25 million Mexicans living in their northern neighbor.

Mexican politicians had talked for years about allowing absentee voting, especially in the United States, but the idea never got going because of concerns about possible fraud and over how to reach millions of undocumented migrants who often live under false names or documents.

Yet in a sign of the growing influence of the Mexican diaspora, the top three political parties agreed in April to take action. And President Vicente Fox announced Tuesday - on the eve of a trip to the United States, in part to meet with migrants - that he would send his own bill to Congress letting Mexicans vote from outside the country.

“The right to vote is a right that (migrants) cannot continue to be denied,” Fox said.

Lawmakers had laid out a similar plan, but their proposal would limit absentee voting to presidential elections, the next of which comes in 2006. And it would require all voters to enroll in Mexico, barring registration at Mexican consulates and other offices abroad.

Migrant groups welcome the Congress plan as a start. But they are lobbying for Mexicans abroad to be able to vote for senators, too, and also to register outside Mexico.

Tighter security on the U.S. border, the cost of the trip home and years of living abroad often incline migrants to forgo voting.

Only 1.5 million are registered to vote in Mexico now, according to the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. But Mexico’s Congress passed a law last year authorizing dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship. At least 10 million people living in the United States were born in Mexico, and millions more could seek dual citizenship.

The changes underline how migrants have become a powerful political force in Mexico, where they were long shunned or ignored.

For years, Mexicans regarded migrants who worked in the United States with indifference at best. Some were seen as traitors, abandoning Mexican farms and factories in exchange for U.S. pay often 10 times more than they could make in Mexico.

Fox’s election in 2000 changed all that. He campaigned in part on the rights of Mexicans living outside the country, particularly those in the United States. Since taking office, he has called migrants heroes and set up offices dedicated to defending their rights in the United States.

Mexicans living in the United States have a powerful negotiating tool. They sent home a record $13.3 billion last year, Mexico’s second-largest source of foreign income behind oil.

Those remittances helped convince the northern state of Zacatecas, half of whose 3 million citizens live in the United States, to pass a constitutional reform earmarking at least two state legislative seats for migrants.

Legislators also changed state law to allow part-time residents to seek public office. That came after a court nullified the election of Andres Bermudez Viramontes as mayor of Jerez because the migrant-turned-millionaire didn’t live in Mexico year-round.

The changes gained momentum with the creation of a program that matches every dollar a migrant donates to Zacatecas with a dollar each from local, state and federal governments.

Congress is not near a final agreement on setting up a system for absentee voting, but lawmakers seem committed to having one in place for the 2006 election to choose Fox’s successor.