Mexico's Presidential Election: Implications for U.S. Immigration Policy
Mexicans went to the polls on July 2 for the second freely contested presidential election of the century. The announced results gave Felipe Calderon, of the center-right Partido de Accion Nacional (PAN), a razor-thin margin over Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador of the center-left Partido de la Revolucion Democratica (PRD).
Of over 41 million votes cast in 130,000 polling stations, Calderon won 35.89 percent to Lopez-Obrador's 35.31 percent, with Roberto Madrazo of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) trailing badly with 22 percent. In simultaneous congressional elections, PAN won the most legislative seats in both houses of Congress, but lacks a majority in either. The PRD is the second party in each house, with PRI (which enjoyed a monopoly of power for 70 years) in third place.
Intellectuals, artists, and members of Lopez-Obrador's electoral coalition have demanded a complete recount. They have pressed for their demands with a series of large-scale marches and peaceful civil disobedience tactics. However, as of late August, the outcome of the presidential election remains unresolved, pending a September 6 decision by the judicial Federal Electoral Tribunal. Both PAN and PRD filed complaints regarding campaign irregularities, as well as election-day problems.
Despite a long history of intervention in Mexican affairs, the U.S. government seems to be taking a relatively neutral position, with leading U.S. newspaper editorial pages split over whether Mexico should do a complete recount or accept a Calderon victory.
While the United States has seen a high level of public, media, and Congressional interest in U.S. immigration reform in 2006, little discussion has focused on political, social, and economic conditions in Mexico. However, the number of Mexican foreign born in the United States alone ought to convince U.S. policymakers that what happens in Mexico matters enormously for U.S. immigration policy.
What next in Mexico's disputed elections?
The recent release of the Census Bureau's interim American Community Survey (ACS) shows a 20.7 percent increase in the Mexican foreign-born population between 2000 and 2005, from just over 9 million (9,092,288) to almost 11 million (10,969,941). ACS also reports that while 58 percent of new Mexican immigrants settled in the five traditional "gateway states," 35 percent settled in 20 other states that have seen large percentage increases in their Mexican immigrant population in the last decade.
In the 12 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted, Mexico's economic restructuring has resulted in increased rural unemployment, which, in turn, has increased emigration as predicted in a 1997 study by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. While NAFTA has dramatically increased trade between Mexico and the United States and created jobs in Mexico's manufacturing sector, many of the jobs in new factories (maquiladoras) do not pay a living wage.
The statements of all three major candidates in 2006 closely tracked Vicente Fox's promises in 2000 to enter into a binational partnership with the United States and to create jobs to stem migration. However, following the termination of promising negotiations after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (see Mexico-U.S. Migration: A Long Way to Go), and with his domestic agenda stalled in Mexico's first multiparty Congress, it is generally acknowledged that Fox failed to deliver on his migration-related goals.
Both Calderon and Lopez-Obrador acknowledged the need to deal with the United States on the migration question. They also said during the campaign that Mexico needed to create more and better jobs to stem migration, but they presented opposing models of how to accomplish that goal.
Calderon advocates an intensification of economic reforms initiated under Fox to create a less regulated economy, and he openly advocates the privatization of Mexico's petroleum industry, a move likely to be highly controversial. Lopez-Obrador favors more state intervention to assist farmers and industries that used to have tariff protection, along with keeping the petroleum industry state-owned.
At the state level in Mexico, governors of all three major political parties continue to work with their U.S.-based expatriate communities for more remittance-based partnerships for local development. Yet the "Holy Grail" of remittance-financed job creation remains elusive, as most of the $20 billion sent to Mexico in 2005 (from the United States and other countries) was used for individual family support. The small amount of remittances put into collective projects (with matching government funds) is generally dedicated to the beautification of town churches and plazas, as well as small-scale infrastructure improvements to local schools, roads, and sewage systems.
Whether Calderon or Lopez-Obrador becomes president of Mexico later this year, U.S. policymakers, immigration advocates, and immigration restrictionists will need to pay attention to the economic, political, and social realities of Mexico. A president that has no strong mandate — a stark contrast to the strong presidencies of the past — and divided Mexican Congress will face real challenges to produce coherent policy initiatives aimed at reducing migration.
Activity at the state level in both countries, where the impact of Mexican migration is felt most strongly, will continue despite inaction at the national level — with immigrant integration controversies in U.S. states and debates over economic development in Mexican states.
Current cross-border discussions between Mexican and U.S. scholars, legislators, businesspeople, labor unions, and community leaders may help both national governments realize that a migration policy that recognizes the economic, political, and social integration of the two countries is increasingly necessary. As one Mexican government official has put it, "We're not going away."
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
CNN (2006). "Calderon wins disputed Mexico vote." July 6. Available online.
Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey (2002). Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Age of Economic Integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Lopez Cordova, Jose E (2006). "Globalization, Migration and Development: The Role of Mexican Migrant Remittances." Inter-American Development Bank, August. Available online.
U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1997). "Binational Study: Migration Between Mexico and the United States." Available online.