What Mexican Immigrants in America Want from Their New President

Eager for change and improved relations with the US, LA’s Mexican-American community discusses their hopes for Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the new president-elect.

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Jul 10 2018, 4:02pm

On July 1, a group of Mexican citizens in Los Angeles gathered for an election viewing party at the offices of the Frente Binacional de Organizaciones Indígenas (FIOB), a pro-immigrant organization based in south LA. The crowd sat at long banquet tables and watched as the results rolled in on the screen. Some passed around tlayudas—a traditional dish consisting of an open-faced fried tortilla topped with refried beans, meat, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, and salsa—that had been prepared by Alfonso “Poncho” Martínez, a Oaxacan-born chef who owns a Friday-only tlayudas restaurant next to the FIOB office.

There wasn’t a ton of suspense onscreen that night: With an overwhelming 53 percent of the vote, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known by his initials AMLO, won the election after campaigning on a populist agenda. It represented a major comeback for for the former mayor of Mexico City, who lost the 2006 presidential race by 0.5 percent and lost again six years later. But his message finally resonated this time with an enraged, disappointed population, one that seemed fed up with more than two decades of violence and disruption that often benefited political and economic elites.

The election—the first since Donald Trump took office—wasn’t just about changing attitudes inside Mexico, however: the country’s immigrants in the United States voted differently, too. In 2006—the first presidential election in which Mexicans abroad were allowed to vote through absentee ballots—58 percent voted for Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the conservative National Action Party (PAN); he ultimately became president. AMLO, meanwhile, only received 34 percent of the vote from Mexicans living abroad. In the 2012 election, Mexican migrants cast their ballots for the PAN candidate again, Josefina Vázquez Mota, who received 42 percent of the absentee vote. AMLO raked in 39 percent—higher than he had in the 2006 election, but not nearly enough to win. For the second election in a row, absentee ballots weren’t indicative of larger political attitudes in the country: Enrique Peña Nieto won the presidency, although he only received 15 percent of the vote abroad.

But in 2018, voting preferences both at home in Mexico and amongst Mexicans abroad were strongly in favor of AMLO—even weeks before Election Day. A poll conducted in April 2018 by the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and Latino Decisions, a political opinion research firm, found that 40 percent of Mexicans registered to vote through absentee ballots indicated that they intended to vote for AMLO; only 8 percent said they would vote for his closest competitor, the conservative Ricardo Anaya (PAN), and 33 percent said that they were undecided. AMLO ultimately garnered 53 percent of the popular vote, winning him the presidency. And he especially won support from Mexicans in the US: 65 percent of Mexican absentee ballots were cast for AMLO, and 77 percent of them came from Mexican voters living in America. Many of them seem to believe that AMLO can finally usher in change to the issues that immigrants living in the US care about most.

Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, a sociologist from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca who currently works as the Project Director at the UCLA Labor Studies Center, was one of the people gathered in FIOB headquarters for the election viewing party. “There are several pending items on the US-Mexico agenda, and I think AMLO’s victory is a good opportunity to establish new terms [in the relationship between both countries],” he says. “The relationship between the two countries is at its lowest point yet, even though [current President] Enrique Peña Nieto conceded many of the requests coming from the Trump administration.” Throughout his campaign, AMLO expressed his desire for a bilateral relationship built on “friendship and cooperation, not subjugation,” calling for a less “submissive” approach than the one taken by Peña Nieto’s administration.

Rivera-Salgado’s view of the deteriorating relations between both countries is one seemingly shared by the Mexican public. According to a recent study published by the Wilson Center, the overall nationwide perception of the United States in Mexico is 30 percent positive, while the perception of Mexico in the US is 64 percent positive. In 2017, 84 percent of the Mexican population found the US to be untrustworthy—a massive increase from 2016, in which 31 percent said they distrusted their northern neighbor. Disapproval of Trump in particular was also (predictably) widespread: only 5 percent of Mexicans had a favorable view of the US president in 2017, compared to 49 percent for Barack Obama in 2016.

Rivera-Salgado suggested that Mexico has been pushed to do the US government’s “dirty work” by complying with its calls to stop Central American immigrants who cross through Mexico in their attempt to reach the US border. In 2014, at the urging of the Obama administration, Peña Nieto’s government launched Programa Frontera Sur (Southern Border Program), an aggressive deportation and arrest program. Trump has repeatedly demanded even more action from the Mexican government and sees migration as a national security problem, whereas AMLO’s stance primarily emphasizes human rights. While the president-elect remarked in a recent interview with The New Yorker that, after watching Trump, he believes it’s “not prudent to take him on directly,” he also doesn’t appear willing to back down entirely: In March 2017, he filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights against Trump’s planned border wall and his administration’s treatment of immigrants. The move set the tone for how he may approach his relationship with Trump and how his administration may tackle immigration on their end.

“It’s been said that Trump is annoyed because Mexico hasn’t been able to [successfully detain incoming migrants on their end],” Rivera-Salgado said. “In that sense, I think Mexicans are really expecting a firm and strong position from [the incoming administration].”

The immigrant community

In the week leading up to election day, American outlets like the New York Times, Politico, and The New Yorker depicted AMLO as a candidate whose campaign was fueled by two key assets: his populist agenda and his anti-Trump position. While both certainly played a role, it’s unlikely that they superseded the Mexican public’s general frustration with long term, widespread government corruption in being the ultimate factor that led to AMLO’s victory. When speaking to The New Yorker about Trump’s role in the election, former Ambassador to China Jorge Guajardo replied, “Zero. And for a very simple reason—everyone in Mexico opposes him equally.”

But if Trump and his administration’s handling of the migration crisis isn’t a major determinant for the Mexican electorate, they’re more concerned about the Mexican government’s mishandling of regions from which people are most likely to emigrate. “Poncho” Martínez knows this. According to the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), 48 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population lives in Poncho’s home state of Oaxaca. At a poverty rate of 66.8 percent, it’s also the second poorest state in Mexico (behind the state of Chiapas, where the poverty rate is 76.2 percent).

“I believe [AMLO’s] administration can [and should] work closer with our communities in Mexico,” he said between serving tlayudas to the hungry crowd after the results were announced. “Every [other] candidate has failed us; they visit my town, greet people, promise things, and then never go back. There are people in [the town where I’m from] who can’t read; they clap but they don’t know why.” Many migrants who attempt to cross the US border are from indigenous communities like his; many can’t read and only speak their native indigenous language.

Odilia Romero, an indigenous rights and immigration activist and member of FIOB who attended the viewing party, argued that Mexico needs to address its bureaucratic presence abroad. “[We need to] make changes to the way consulates operate,” she said.

Romero arrived in California in 1981 when she was 11 years old. Originally from the town of San Bartolomé Zoogocho in Oaxaca’s northern highlands, Romero was like many children who come to live in the US: she didn’t speak English, but her Spanish wasn’t very good either. Thousands of migrants who now live in the United States have come from regions of Mexico where only one indigenous language is spoken. The migration of indigenous people to the US has especially increased over the last 15 years as a result of NAFTA; rural Mexican farmers struggle to compete with subsidized, transgenic US products, which means that local products are undersold and people can’t make a living.

On May 4, a group of Mexican activists from the US traveled to Mexico City to meet with the presidential candidates to learn about their positions regarding the nearly 12 million Mexican immigrants living in America. Romero attended the summit. The candidates sent representatives, and while most of the audience felt that they weren’t adequately prepared to respond to the activists’ questions—nor did they have specific policy proposals—Romero thought the event was a good start. It was the first time that candidates met with leaders from the immigrant community. Romero recalled that AMLO’s representative, Olga Sánchez Cordero, was particularly attentive to the group’s questions and demands (Cordero has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for AMLO’s Minister of the Interior). Romero believes the next administration is willing to keep the dialogue going.

“We need consulates that can actually help us,” she stressed. “Diplomats who know how to lobby with politicians here, who can fight and protect rights [of Mexican migrants]. [We need] government representatives who treat their own people with dignity even if they’re living in the US.”

One thing is certain: now that Mexican immigrants have entrusted AMLO with their vote, they expect him to make headway on the long list of tasks that await him once he’s sworn into office.

“We have much more to do,” Rivera-Salgado says. “We need to unlock the economic integration process [that NAFTA was supposed to bring]. We have to set a common agenda in regards to transnational migration, and that requires giving Central American governments a seat at the table. It’s unlikely that the Trump administration will suggest that, but AMLO has a opportunity to take the debate to the next level.”

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Update 7/10: This article initially cited early polling data that suggested 90 percent of absentee ballots would be cast from the US. Those numbers were subsequently changed to 77 percent. The article has been updated to reflect the change.

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