Debate Over Mexican Migrants' Right To Vote

MEXICO CITY -- An intense debate has surfaced here involving the country's relationship with its citizens -- approximately 10 million of them -- who live in the United States.To some, the debate concerns only the right of these nationals to vote in presidential elections, beginning in the year 2000 -- a right unanimously approved by the Mexican Congress in 1996, with the express support of President Ernesto Zedillo as part of an ambitious package of electoral reforms.Since then, however, the President and members of his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have made every effort to impede the exercise of this right. It has been suggested that they fear the migrant vote will heavily favor candidates of the rapidly rising opposition parties.Some government and PRI officials argue that implementing the vote would be too costly for a nation facing economic crisis and call for delaying the program until the 2006 election.Some party hardliners say flat out that the right to vote should not be extended as it represents a threat to Mexican national sovereignty -- despite the fact that scores of other nations offer this right with no visible damage to their sovereignty. A scholarly study found the reform was technically feasible and that migrants support it overwhelmingly -- 83 percent of migrants surveyed want to participate in the next presidential election.The issue is not simply one of suffrage rights. At stake as well are the definition of the nation itself, and the future of democracy in a country that has seldom found ways to make authorities accountable to citizens.The question of what it means to be part of the Mexican nation has been tested particularly since 1994, when an armed guerrilla movement -- the Zapatista Army of National Liberation -- emerged in the state of Chiapas to claim rights promised to all citizens in the 1917 Constitution. This forced Mexico to begin to recognize that indigenous peoples have never enjoyed equality or benefited proportionately from the country's economic development.Mexicans living in the United States argue that they have a constitutional and moral right to participate in elections. With the estimated $6 billion they send home per year, migrants support millions of relatives, boost economic activity in their home regions, create jobs, reduce political tensions, and help provide the government much needed foreign currency.The need for greater accountability is particularly evident to migrants at the turn of the year, when they return home on vacation -- and are subjected to systematic abuse by representatives of numerous government agencies as they become prime targets for unscrupulous customs, transit, police, judicial, and even army officers. The numerous checkpoints located between the international border and central Mexico becomes a terrifying gauntlet that can cost migrants their hard earned money, clothes, electronic appliances, and even automobiles.It is probably impossible to find a migrant who has not suffered humiliation and extortion on the way home. Needless to say, the same perils appear on the return trip to the United States.The situation has become so scandalous that even some government controlled organizations such as the National Peasant Confederation have denounced the abuses. In Guanajuato state a confederation delegate traveled to the international border in an attempt to help some migrants arrive home safely. Representatives from Hidalgo state have denounced local, state and federal authorities' for violating human rights.Unfortunately, these pleas are doomed to failure. Authoritarian political systems, such as Mexico's, tend to lack mechanisms that ensure the efficacy of citizen influence on government. Mexican citizens in general, including migrants, feel disempowered and unable to eliminate official corruption. It is no surprise that academic studies consistently find that government institutions have absurdly low levels of credibility.Without the right to elect authorities, Mexicans who migrate to the United States will lack the means to hold government officials accountable. Extortion, robbery, violations of human rights and other forms of corruption are therefore likely to continue -- at least until democracy triumphs in Mexico. Jesus Martinez is an immigrant researcher and activist who was formerly a member of the Political Science Department at Santa Clara University.

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