Campaigning north of the border

By Deborah Kong
Published June 18th 2003 in Associated Press

STOCKTON -- Standing before a packed room decorated with his party's brightly colored signs, congressional candidate José Jacques Medina implores the crowd to give him its support in next month's election.

It's just another campaign stop, except that the election is hundreds of miles away in another country -- México -- and the yellow and black signs adorning the restaurant's walls bear the emblem of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD in Spanish.

Medina is one of six U.S. residents seeking a seat in México's lower house of Congress in July's midterm election. A Los Angeles labor organizer who came to the United States 30 years ago, he is eligible to hold office in México because that nation considers him a citizen. He was born in México City in the regional district he hopes to represent.

Mexican voters won't directly vote for Medina and the other immigrant candidates, who are running for 200 at-large seats under a proportional representation system. Instead, their names appear on five regional lists compiled by the political parties in order of preference. The party's share of the vote determines how many candidates are selected from each list.

Medina pledged he would bring immigrants' concerns to the Mexican Congress. There are about 9.1 million Mexican-born residents of the United States, including citizens of both countries.

"We don't have our own voices," Medina told the crowd, a mix of recent immigrants and longtime residents, all taking a break from their jobs in the Central Valley's fields, construction sites and service industry. "There's no representation."

Mexican President Vicente Fox has hailed the immigrants, who sent home more than $9 billion last year, as heroes for adding a needed boost to his country's economy. Immigrants say it's time that support translated into political power.

The remittances have "a direct impact on the economy, but we have no representation for the money we send to México," said Felipe Aguirre, president of the PRD in California. "We're saying we should have our seat at the table."

Immigrant candidates say a top priority is securing the right to an absentee vote for citizens living outside of México. A 1996 constitutional amendment in México envisioned voting abroad, but Mexican lawmakers have never passed measures to enact it. Mexican citizens who live in the United States must travel to Mexico in order to vote.

But even without an absentee vote, México's political parties believe immigrants can influence the outcome of elections by calling relatives in México.

"Because they're in the U.S. making a living, they have a certain standing within the family structure in México," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the México Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

Ricardo Enrique Murillo, a researcher at the University of Chicago, said he is also a candidate registered with the PRD, though his name hasn't been added yet to the Mexican government's list of official candidates.

Murillo, who was born in a small town in western México, came to the United States when he was 25, with only a grammar school education. He crossed the border seven times -- twice getting caught and deported. He says he once ran from Tijuana to San Diego, then traveled to Los Angeles in the trunk of a car.

"I know life in the States, life from an immigrant's perspective," said the 44-year-old Murillo, who eventually earned a master's degree in international relations.

Like some of the other candidates, Murillo became a legal resident after applying for amnesty under a 1986 federal law.

Others are citizens of both countries.

México's two other main parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and Fox's National Action Party, the PAN, are not slating any U.S. residents as candidates, U.S.-based party members said. The PRI and PAN each currently hold more than 200 seats in the lower house of Congress; the PRD holds 52.

Three years ago, PRI candidate Eddie Varón Levy became the first immigrant candidate to win office. Varón, a Los Angeles legal consultant, finishes his term this summer.

Luis Magaña, an immigrant organizer who attended the Stockton meeting, said the immigrant candidates are a "good beginning," though he wishes more were from agricultural areas.

It's like saying to the Mexican government, "Hey, wake up, we're here," Magaña said. "Don't just see our economic power."