In Mexico, Migration Issue Gets No Traction

Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has pledged to create 9 million jobs in six years.
Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has pledged to create 9 million jobs in six years. (By Eduardo Verdugo -- Associated Press)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 15, 2006

HUEJUTLA, Mexico -- The illegal immigration debate draws millions of protesters to the streets of U.S. cities. It touches off podium-pounding on Capitol Hill and passions among talking heads.

But the same debate here in Mexico, the country of origin of most illegal immigrants in the United States, is far from a blockbuster issue in this year's presidential contest. Even though developments in the United States have forced candidates to discuss migration more often in the past two months than in the early stages of the race, none of the three major contenders has made the issue a central tenet of his campaign.

Their calculus is simple, according to political analysts and advisers to the candidates: They don't think it will help them win the July 2 election.

"Foreign policy doesn't give you any votes in Mexico," Jorge Montaño, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations, said in an interview. "The candidates have been extremely practical."

Beyond the political calculation, the candidates' strategies are grounded in fundamentals, including the reality that a Mexican president has no control over U.S. immigration law, and in hard numbers. Expectations that huge numbers of Mexicans living in the United States would register to vote went unmet. After 1 million absentee ballots were printed, only 40,800 of an estimated 4 million eligible Mexicans living in the United States registered.

Recent political history also plays into the calculation, illustrating the risks candidates face by emphasizing migration. After his victory in 2000, President Vicente Fox staked much of his political capital on hopes of reaching an immigration accord with the United States. Those hopes disintegrated when the United States tightened its border policy following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leaving the perception that Fox had failed in one of his most important missions.

All three leading contenders in this year's race, Felipe Calderón of Fox's National Action Party, or PAN; Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD; and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, have said they want an immigration accord with the United States. But none has guaranteed they will deliver. On the stump they tend to race past any mention of an accord and on to pledges that they will stem migration by improving the economy.

"I would rather see a Huastecan working in a packing house in Huejutla than in a packing house in California," Calderón said during a recent campaign stop in Huejutla, a mountain town in eastern Mexico, 120 miles northeast of Mexico City, where indigenous Huastecan women placed a mound of flower petals on his head.

Calderón, who has spoken against building more fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, is proposing that Mexico solicit aid funds from the United States and Canada, another major destination of Mexican workers, for development programs in impoverished areas of Mexico that send the most illegal migrants abroad.

Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican consul general in New York who is Calderón's lead foreign policy adviser, said he expects candidates to address migration more often in the final weeks of the campaign. But he believes the discussion has to be presented through the prism of the economy of Mexico, where, the World Bank has estimated, half the population lives in poverty.

"The immigration issue, per se, does not weigh significantly in the campaign," Sarukhan said in an interview. "At the end of the day, the debate is about job creation."

López Obrador, who is tied with or slightly ahead of Calderón in new opinion polls, is taking a similar tack. In a televised presidential debate last week, López Obrador said Mexico needed to address the root causes of illegal immigration by providing more jobs, and he promised not to insert Mexico into the "internal lives of other countries and other governments."

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