Illegal Status Hinders Mexican Voting Bloc

The Associated Press
Monday, July 3, 2006; 6:01 AM

LOS ANGELES -- In a Mexican presidential election so close the winner won't be named for days, many expatriates did not vote for fear their illegal status in the U.S. would be exposed.

Thousands of Mexican expatriates streamed into border towns Sunday to vote in their homeland's elections and others were allowed to cast absentee ballots for the first time. But some were disenfranchised by their fear of crossing the border as undocumented residents.

"Why couldn't they have made it easier for us to vote here?" said Adriana Lopez, 27, a housewife and illegal immigrant in Orange County who wanted to but couldn't vote out of fear to cross the border. "The governments at home are always so corrupt."

When Mexico's Congress passed a law last year extending suffrage to expatriates, Mexicans here hailed it as overdue recognition of the billions of dollars they send home every year.

Celebrations turned to frustration when it was learned that people who wanted to vote needed a current electoral card, and that the cutoff date to apply for an absentee ballot was nearly six months before the election. Mexican electoral laws also do not allow campaigning in the United States, making it hard for expatriates to connect with candidates.

Fear over the last year kept many from traveling to Mexico to vote in person or apply for a voter card, necessary to request an absentee ballot or vote in Mexico on Election Day.

Electoral officials said late Sunday the race between leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon was too close to call and they would have to wait for the district-by-district vote count that starts Wednesday to declare a winner.

Some expatriates hoped more would participate next time.

"The main thing is, the door has been opened" for expatriates to vote, said Jesus Hernandez, 47, one of only 13,500 Mexicans in California who sent in ballots. "Later, we can reconstruct the procedures to make it easier in the future."

Of the estimated 4.2 million eligible Mexican voters living abroad, only about 41,000, or 1 percent, requested absentee ballots. Of the 32,632 valid absentee ballots mailed to the Federal Electoral Institute, only 28,335 were from the United States.

The Mexican government set up 86 polls along the 2,000-mile border, mostly for migrants who missed out on its absentee ballot campaign. Leaving in the wee hours Sunday morning, dozens boarded buses in Los Angeles and other Southern California cities to head to Tijuana.

Voting was not all smooth at the special polling stations, which apparently received just 750 ballots each to prevent voter fraud. That left hundreds of voters in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, unable to vote.

"This shows how irresponsible electoral officials are," said Javier de Anda, a construction contractor from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey who was turned away after waiting in the sun for two hours. "If they know that many of us will be away from our voting districts they shouldn't limit the number of ballots."

Mexicans said the new president would have a vital role in helping millions of undocumented immigrants get legal residency. Outgoing President Vicente Fox made immigration a priority in recent months, traveling to the United States to encourage Congress to pass legislation giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.

"It's important for the new president to fight for rights for Mexicans in this country," said Araceli Rodriguez, of Florida City, Fla., who voted with an absentee ballot.

Patricio Ballados, expatriate vote coordinator for Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, said the agency would consider recommending to Congress that Mexican nationals be allowed to renew their voting cards at consulates.

"This was a first step of a historic vote," said Ballados. "It planted the seeds for years to come."


Associated Press writers Olga R. Rodriguez in Tijuana, Adrian Sainz in Miami, Amanda Lee Myers in Phoenix and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Associated Press