Mexican Election Could Lead to Immigration Shift

Mexico’s presidential and congressional elections Sunday will have significant implications in the United States.

For U.S. citizens concerned about the flow of immigrants, a win by the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador may do more to effectively address the conditions of poverty pushing Mexicans over the U.S. border in search of work than a victory by any of the other candidates.

The final opinion polls show Mr. Lopez Obrador of the liberal Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) with a 2 percent to 5 percent lead over Felipe Calderon, the candidate of the conservative and incumbent National Action Party (PAN). Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is trailing in third place.

The election of Mr. Calderon, a candidate with no political experience except a Cabinet position as energy secretary, would represent a continuation of the policies of President Vicente Fox. This would include a full embracing of the U.S. corporate free-trade agenda for the hemisphere, which has brought some benefits to Mexico but exacerbated problems of poverty and inequality.

But a vote for Mr. Lopez Obrador would be a clear rejection of traditional, conservative economic policies. His campaign slogan – “For the good of all, first the poor” – reflects his focus on job creation and poverty alleviation, especially in the vast rural areas of Mexico.

As mayor of Mexico City, North America’s most populous city, with more than 20 million residents, Mr. Lopez Obrador aggressively tackled corruption and nepotism and reduced the salaries of top government posts, including his own. He also channeled funds into economic infrastructure, job development and anti-poverty programs. He has vowed that if he’s elected president, he will expand his anti-poverty agenda to the national level.

Unlike Mr. Fox, Mr. Lopez Obrador won’t champion U.S. corporate free-trade policies in Latin America, as the Bush administration would hope.

He already has called for a renegotiation of certain provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, an estimated 2 million Mexicans have lost their agricultural jobs because they have been unable to compete with subsidized U.S. farm exports.

Free-trade policies between the United States and Mexico also have hurt both countries’ manufacturing sectors. First, U.S. companies fled to Mexico for lower wages. Then they fled to China for even lower ones.

The loss of agricultural and manufacturing jobs has led to massive migration from rural areas of Mexico to northern Mexican border states and to the United States.

Rather than promote corporate free trade, the U.S. government and the Mexican government should adopt economic policies that make it possible for families to stay together and remain in their communities.

U.S. politicians who believe immigration is simply a border security issue must recognize a lesson that Mexicans understand: Poverty fuels immigration.

Whoever is elected, the U.S. government should assist Mexico with a combination of trade and foreign aid that enables the country to fully develop its rural and urban economies.

If Mr. Lopez Obrador wins, the Bush administration should respect the Mexican people’s choice and begin to work with him immediately to find joint solutions to the many common challenges that face the countries.

And if Mr. Calderon wins, the Bush administration should re-examine the medicine it has been prescribing.

We need to support Mexicans’ aspiration to develop an economy that works for everyone.

After all, when people have economic opportunities to stay in their own countries, they stay put.

This op-ed ran in the Baltimore Sun on June 30, 2006.Nadia Martinez is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies. Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.