'We'd Be on the Other Side of the Wall': US Expats in Mexico in the Time of Trump

Living in Mexico inevitably informs what members of the largest American expatriate community in the world think about the way the primaries across the border are going.

by Eduardo Gonzalez and David Olvera-Sanchez
Mar 7 2016, 7:50pm

Imagen por Marco Ugarte/AP

Sporting a slicked-back ponytail, hiking boots, and blue jeans, 38-year-old New Orleans native Sean Reagan lounges on a bench in San Miguel de Allende, the colonial Mexican town where he lives.

He seems to be at perfect ease — until he is asked about the US elections.

"We're not as plugged in as people in the States, but we're definitely watching," he said of American expats like himself. "I mean, mostly in horror."

The largest American expatriate community in the world resides in Mexico. Estimated to be around one million, it boasts greater raw voting power than that of six US States and the District of Columbia. Life on the other side of the border also informs the way these potential voters see key parts of the political debate, such as Donald Trump's promise to build an impenetrable frontier wall.

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"It always sounded absurd to me, but it puts it in an even more absurd light, coming from here [Mexico]," said Elizabeth Auritt, a recent college graduate who is now working for an economic development organization in Mexico City. "Of course immigration is a good thing and, as an expat in another country, you see that more clearly."

It is easy to find critics of Trump's rhetoric among Americans living in Mexico, given his nasty comments about Mexican immigrants that began with the speech that launched his campaign in which he called them "rapists" and "criminals." But there are also those who sympathize with the leader of the Republican pack, even if sometimes they wish he would tone it down a bit. 

'Trump makes perfect sense to me... But he's just a bully.'

"Trump makes perfect sense to me" said Karen Boda, a California native and lifelong Republican who now works as a real estate agent in Mexico City. "But he's just a bully. I don't think he's the image I want for the Republicans because he's not a diplomat."

Boda said her instinctual support for Trump owes most to a sense that he would be a strong leader in the current context of global insecurity. It is a sense, she said, that was hammered home by recent terrorist attacks around the globe and by living in a place she believes could also be hit.

"We don't know where they're going to strike next and Mexico could be an easy target," said Boda, who added that she tends not to reveal her conservative political views to her Mexican clients for fear of scaring them off.

Larry Rubin, a dual US and Mexican citizen who leads the Mexican chapter of Republicans Overseas, said he believes security concerns should encourage all Americans living in Mexico to lean Republican.

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He also argues that Mexicans in general share a culture with the Republican party that values religion, smaller government, lower taxes, and expanded international trade. And, he claims, most expats move abroad for business and so do not appreciate the protectionism associated with the Democrats.

"The American community in Mexico want more jobs from US companies here," Rubin said.

Yet the head of Republicans abroad admitted there was significant "angst" within the community about Trump and more sympathy for Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush (when he was still in the race) thanks to their ties to Latino heritage.

"He [Trump] is seen as someone who would not be able to work well with the Mexican government, and that is of interest to the Republican community here," Rubin said. "We are constantly saying to other Americans that the Republican Party is not defined by Donald Trump."

The Democrats also have their own image problem thanks to the hike in the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants deported on President Barack Obama's watch. Obama is even known to some activists here as the "deporter in chief."

'We're definitely watching... I mean, mostly in horror'

Even so, Vice Chair of the Mexican Chapter of Democrats Abroad, Marc Berube, claimed his party is more inclusive.

"What engaged me with the party was this idea of wanting to help everyone," he said. "I am a Democrat because the party cares about everyone…. people who need food stamps, women's rights, LGBT people."

Berube, who spearheads events for the Democratic community around Mexico from his base in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, lauded his party's candidates for avoiding the "distracting name-calling" of the Republicans.

'Bernie's cool, but he's a bit out there. It'd be nice to have some other candidates'

He said he personally errs towards former secretary Clinton, but conceded that this may reflect his age. "Perhaps it's a generational thing," Berube said. "I know that many of the younger people really like Bernie Sanders."

For Sean Reagan, the New Orleans native, the choice is so difficult that he wishes he had another option.

"I'm not wild about Hillary…even though she's more to my liking than most of the Republicans, she's still an insider. She's status quo," he said. "Bernie's cool, but he's a bit out there. It'd be nice to have some other candidates in between that I could get behind."

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But, as so often happens in conversations about the US elections in Mexico, it can all seem to come back to Donald Trump.

"Imagine if he did take power, with this whole idea of building a wall between the United States and Mexico," Reagan added. "We'd be on the other end of that. We'd be on the other side of the wall." 

Follow Eduardo Gonzalez and David Olvera Sanchez on Twitter: @ed_gonzalez6 and @jdavid_olvera