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Jewish World Review July 5, 2000 / 3 Tamuz, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Why -- and how -- Vicente Fox broke the Mexican political machine

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- VICENTE FOX, Mexico's newly elected president, has his work cut out for him, ending seven decades of political corruption and undemocratic rule by the PRI, Mexico's governing party since 1929. But Fox's task may be made easier by some surprising allies: Mexicans living in the United States. More than 7.3 million Mexicans now live on the U.S. side of the border -- about 4.8 million of whom are legal residents -- and they played an important role in Fox's election.

Although only those Mexican citizens actually living in Mexico were eligible to vote in Sunday's election, Fox actively campaigned among his compatriots north of the border. As the election results proved, it wasn't a wasted effort. For many reasons, including their proximity to their homeland and changing U.S. attitudes toward assimilation, Mexicans in the United States have retained closer cultural ties to Mexico than previous waves of immigrants maintained with their native countries.

Not only do Mexicans send home an estimated $4 billion per year to their families and former communities, but thanks to advances in communications and travel, they are far more likely than previous immigrants to speak frequently to family members and friends and to visit their former hometowns and villages. Fox campaigned in California and elsewhere, hoping Mexicans in the United States would encourage their relatives and friends back home to vote for his more free market-oriented National Action Party (PAN).

Traditionally, Mexican emigrants have been shunned by their government and often by the compatriots they left behind. But that has changed dramatically in the last few decades, especially as emigration from Mexico has increased.

In 1990, the Mexican government launched a "Program for Mexican Communities Abroad" to assist its countrymen in the United States. In a just-released study for my Center for Equal Opportunity, "The Melting Border: Mexico and Mexican Communities in the United States," author Robert S. Leiken documents the relationship between the Mexican government and the extensive network of Mexican-immigrant organizations in the United States. Leiken spent a year interviewing Mexican officials in Mexico and the United States, as well as Mexican immigrants living here.

Fox

Like Jews, Italians, Germans, Swedes, and others before them, Mexican immigrants usually settle in American cities or towns where relatives, friends or others who come from their hometowns in Mexico already reside.

This phenomenon allows new arrivals to adjust more quickly to their new environment by providing housing, job tips, and other support networks to the newcomers.

In the past, immigrants from the same town or region often formed "mutual aid societies" to help pay for medical care or provide financial help to an immigrant's family when the breadwinner was injured or had died. The advent of private insurance and the welfare state made such groups' original function less necessary, but the tradition of "hometown associations" continued and flourished among Mexicans. Today, these groups focus not only on helping U.S. residents, but they have become the major source of philanthropy for small towns and villages in Mexico. They help build roads, schools, churches and sanitation facilities in the desperately poor, rural areas back home.

Lately, these groups appear to have had an important influence on Mexican politics as well. As Leiken describes it in his study, the Mexican hometown movement in the United States has become an inconspicuous and uncelebrated channel of American influence in Mexico. These groups have helped foster greater transparency and accountability in government -- a rare phenomenon in Mexico -- as well as encouraging voluntary organization and political competition.

The assimilation process for Mexican immigrants living in the United States -- which most analysts agree is slower than for many other immigrant groups -- has nonetheless had an important influence on their lives. Mexican immigrants are absorbing American political values, a sense of their own power to influence policy, and the know-how to form organizations to achieve their aims. Ironically, many are using what they've learned in the United States to help transform the country they left behind.

Vicente Fox and his reformist National Action Party may be the direct winners from this new alliance. But they -- indeed, Mexico itself -- will not be the only ones to benefit from the democratic and economic reforms this election portends. A transition to greater democracy and a market economy is the best hope for reducing illegal immigration to the United States. And fewer illegal immigrants will make it that much easier for legal immigrants from Mexico to adjust to their new lives in America.


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