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A viewpoint by Thomas Elias: Mexico's relations with immigrants

September 04, 2001

Few things could be as destructive for California's huge Mexican-American community than the overtures the president of their native country is making toward them.

Californians of Mexican ancestry, whether born in that country or here, have "a key role to play in the transition to the new Mexico," declared Mexican President Vicente Fox on his last visit to California, a statement he repeated in Chicago last month.

His remarks drew nothing but positive comment from mainstream media outlets here. They missed the point, and dreadfully, for the Fox assertion and his plans to allow Mexican émigrés to vote by absentee ballot in that country's elections or even to have a few seats reserved for them in the Mexican congress can do nothing but harm Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans born here.

Here's why:

For many years, the Mexican government paid no attention to the approximately 10 million of its natives who have left for this country, more than 7 million of whom live in California. At the same time, those new Californians paid little or no attention to the public affairs of the state and nation that had taken them in.


Latinos, primarily Mexican-Americans, were long viewed as the sleeping giant of American politics, especially California's. Hundreds of thousands of longtime legal residents didn't bother applying for citizenship.

They thought more about the politics of their homeland than their new country. As a result, they got little consideration from elected officials.

Health centers and public hospitals were sited outside barrios. The state tried to put prisons inside them. Everything from highway maintenance to police protection and public schooling stayed third-rate for decades in areas where Latinos congregated.

Then came Proposition 187 and everything changed. When Californians passed that 1994 measure with its anti-illegal immigrant provisions, Latinos suddenly felt threatened and realized they must pay attention to their new land, not just their old one.

They signed up for citizenship and registered to vote in droves. In just six years, they doubled their percentage of the total vote in California and helped elect Mexican-American politicians to almost one-fourth of the seats in the state Legislature. Politicians know they can be ignored no longer, as evidenced by a fall election in which both major candidates for president gave speech after speech in Spanish.

No ethnic group's clout has increased so quickly. But that's all threatened by the Fox proposals.

He wants Mexican-Americans to think more about their ancestral homeland than their current home. He wants California to see more of candidates for president of Mexico than it does of candidates for president of the United States.

It's as if a Russian czar had come to New York at the height of Russian immigration there in the late 1800s and announced that the immigrants hadn't really left home, but should keep sending money — not just to family but to politicians as well.

Fox says he wants to end illegal immigration by making life better in Mexico, but his proposals for émigré representation would mean mass rallies aimed squarely at illegal immigrants. With an estimated 2.8 million illegals living in California, that means the state has more potential Mexican votes than all but two of that country's cities.

Fox seems to mean well. Mexican immigrants send billions of dollars home each year, but have little voice in how their money is spent and no control of factors that affect their families in the homeland.

Most were disenfranchised in America until recently — largely by their own choice — and they couldn't vote in Mexico, either.

But if Mexican-Americans get involved in the politics of the old country, they'll be less involved in American public affairs — to their detriment.

What's more, if Mexican elections are ever staged visibly and noisily on California soil, they'll inevitably rekindle the anti-Latino feelings behind Proposition 187 — and Latino clout in California could start to evaporate.

That means there's enormous destructive potential in the plans Vicente Fox is pushing.

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