Mexico's Presidential Election: Implications for US Immigration Policy
By Susan Gzesh
University of Chicago
September 1, 2006
Mexicans went to the polls on July 2 for the second freely contested presidential
election of the century. The announced results gave Felipe Calderon,
of the center-right Partido de Accion Nacional (PAN), a razor-thin
margin over Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador of the center-left Partido de la
Revolucion Democratica (PRD).
Of over 41 million votes cast in 130,000 polling stations, Calderon won 35.89
percent to Lopez-Obrador's 35.31 percent, with Roberto Madrazo of the Partido
Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) trailing badly with 22 percent. In
simultaneous congressional elections, PAN won the most legislative seats
in both houses of Congress, but lacks a majority in either. The PRD is the
second party in each house, with PRI (which enjoyed a monopoly of power
for 70 years) in third place.
Intellectuals, artists, and members of Lopez-Obrador's
electoral coalition have demanded a complete recount. They have pressed for
their demands with a series of large-scale marches and peaceful civil disobedience
tactics. However, as of late August, the outcome of the presidential election remains unresolved,
pending a September 6 decision by the judicial Federal Electoral Tribunal. Both PAN and PRD filed complaints regarding campaign irregularities, as well
as election-day problems.
Despite a long history of intervention in Mexican affairs, the US government
seems to be taking a relatively neutral position, with leading US newspaper
editorial pages split over whether Mexico should do a complete recount or accept
a Calderon victory.
While the United States has seen a high level of public, media, and Congressional
interest in US immigration reform in 2006, little discussion has focused on
political, social, and economic conditions in Mexico. However, the number of
Mexican foreign born in the United States alone ought to convince US policymakers
that what happens in Mexico matters enormously for US immigration policy.
What next in Mexico's disputed elections?
September will be a critical period in Mexico's post-election controversy. The Electoral Tribunal
decision, based on a recount of only 10 percent of polling places, is likely to confirm Calderon's
victory; the decision is expected on or before September 6. The new Congress will take office
September 1, while the presidential transition will take place December 1.
One possible moment for a confrontation will be September 15, when lame-duck President Vicente
Fox is scheduled to preside over the official national celebration of Mexico's independence —
an event always held in the Zócalo, now completely occupied by Lopez-Obrador's supporters.
The recent release of the Census Bureau's interim American Community
Survey (ACS) shows a 20.7 percent increase in the Mexican foreign-born population
between 2000 and 2005, from just over 9 million (9,092,288) to almost 11 million
(10,969,941). ACS also reports that while 58 percent of new Mexican immigrants
settled in the five traditional "gateway states," 35 percent settled
in 20 other states that have seen large percentage increases in their Mexican
immigrant population in the last decade.
In the 12 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was
enacted, Mexico's economic restructuring has resulted in increased rural
unemployment, which, in turn, has increased emigration as predicted in a 1997
study by the US Commission on Immigration Reform. While NAFTA has dramatically
increased trade between Mexico and the United States and created jobs in Mexico's
manufacturing sector, many of the jobs in new factories (maquiladoras)
do not pay a living wage.
The statements of all three major candidates in 2006 closely tracked Vicente
Fox's promises in 2000 to enter into a binational partnership with the
United States and to create jobs to stem migration. However, following
the termination of promising negotiations after the terrorist attacks of September
11, 2001 (see Mexico-US Migration: A Long Way to Go), and
with his domestic agenda stalled in Mexico's first multiparty Congress, it
is generally acknowledged that Fox failed to deliver on his migration-related
Both Calderon and Lopez-Obrador acknowledged the need to deal with the United
States on the migration question. They also said during the campaign that Mexico
needed to create more and better jobs to stem migration, but they presented
opposing models of how to accomplish that goal.
Calderon advocates an intensification of economic reforms initiated under
Fox to create a less regulated economy, and he openly advocates the privatization
of Mexico's petroleum industry, a move likely to be highly controversial.
Lopez-Obrador favors more state intervention to assist farmers and industries that used to have tariff protection, along with keeping the petroleum industry state-owned.
At the state level in Mexico, governors of all three major political parties
continue to work with their US-based expatriate communities for more remittance-based
partnerships for local development. Yet the "Holy Grail" of remittance-financed
job creation remains elusive, as most of the $20 billion sent to Mexico in 2005 (from the United States and other countries) was used for individual family support. The small
amount of remittances put into collective projects (with matching government
funds) is generally dedicated to the beautification of town churches and plazas,
as well as small-scale infrastructure improvements to local schools, roads,
and sewage systems.
Whether Calderon or Lopez-Obrador becomes president of Mexico later this year,
US policymakers, immigration advocates, and immigration restrictionists will
need to pay attention to the economic, political, and social realities of Mexico. A
president that has no strong mandate — a stark contrast to the strong presidencies of the past — and divided Mexican Congress will face real challenges
to produce coherent policy initiatives aimed at reducing migration.
Activity at the state level in both countries, where the impact of Mexican
migration is felt most strongly, will continue despite inaction at the national
level — with immigrant integration controversies in US states
and debates over economic development in Mexican states.
Current cross-border discussions between Mexican and US scholars, legislators,
businesspeople, labor unions, and community leaders may help both national
governments realize that a migration policy that recognizes the economic, political,
and social integration of the two countries is increasingly necessary. As one
Mexican government official has put it, "We're not going away."
Susan Gzesh is the director of the Human Rights Program at the University
of Chicago and a nonresident fellow of the Migration Policy Institute. She
recently returned from Mexico where she met with analysts and political actors
from across the political spectrum; the opinions expressed in this article
are her own.
CNN (2006). "Calderon wins disputed Mexico vote." July 6. Available
Durand, Jorge, and Douglas S. Massey (2002). Beyond Smoke and Mirrors:
Mexican Immigration in an Age of Economic Integration. New York: Russell
Lopez Cordova, Jose E (2006). "Globalization, Migration and Development: The Role of Mexican Migrant Remittances." Inter-American Development Bank, August. Available
US Commission on Immigration Reform (1997). "Binational Study: Migration
Between Mexico and the United States." Available
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