Undocumented Life: Mexicans in U.S. watched presidential election, but few participated

When Mexicans headed to the polls on Sunday, it was to vote in one of the most contentious elections in years, marked by allegations of fraud and media bias. It was a vote closely watched by Mexicans around the world, not least in the United States, the country with the largest Mexican immigrant population.

But of the estimated 12 million Mexicans in the US, only a small percentage cast their ballots in the election that gave a win to Enrique Pena Nieto and the PRI, the party that ruled the country for more than 70 years before losing power more than a decade ago after allegations of corruption got them tossed from office.

Advocates say the logistical obstacles to applying for an absentee ballot, especially dificult for the undocumented, will keep the majority of immigrants from having their voice heard in this round of elections.

"You don't count if you don't have votes," said Jorge Mujica, a Chicago activist working on a campaign in Mexico to ease the path for Mexicans abroad to vote. Mujica, along with a coalition of other Mexicans residing in the US from various political parties, says the difficulties of getting a voter ID card is also a hindrance to voting for migrants who leave the country because of bad political policies.

"What makes this particularly difficult for undocumented immigrants is many of them don't go home to get the essential voter ID cards for fear they won't be able to come back," said Mujica.

The presidential race was between Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD); and Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN).

Polls before the vote showed PRI leading. But the country had been roiled by allegations that Televisa, the major state-owned media company, had been paid by Peña Nieto for favorable coverage.

In response, the #YoSoy132 movement of Mexican students led mass protests throughout the country since the scandal took off in May. Protests continued after the announcement of Nieto's victory late Sunday evening.

Raul Garcia, an undocumented immigrant who has been watching the developments closely from Chicago,  says that he would vote in the election if he could. But Garcia, who has lived in the United States since 1993 when he headed north after losing his job as a petrochemical firefighter in a plant, doesn't have the required voter ID card.

Mujica says that there are several barriers to immigrants like Garcia getting a card. Firstly, they can't apply from the United States. In Garcia's case, leaving the United States means that he risks not being able to come back to his wife and U.S. citizen son.

Then, says Mujica, even if he could go to Mexico, the period for applying for a voter ID card is very narrow. "You have to request the [voted ID] card in person, and then pick it up in person between 60 and 80 days later," he said. "Then wait another 90 days to get registered on the official list of voters from abroad."

Then to actually vote, he continued, "you have to pick up the form at the Mexican consulate or a community organization, fill it out and send it through certified mail, including a xeroxed copy of your voter card."

Mexican citizens from 104 countries requested ballots be mailed in, reported The Los Angeles Times, with 77 percent of them coming from the United States.

But the total number of ballots recieved as of Sunday morning from the United States was only 40,737, according to the Federal Institute of Elections in Mexico. This is a 23 percent increase from the last presidential election in 2006. Recent estimates put the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States at 12 million.

The presidential election in 2006 was the first time that Mexicans outside of the country had the opportunity to vote. According to Texas Public Radio, more than 32,600 people cast a ballot from the United States.

Mujica says that he is in favor of Lopez Obrador's PRD, the party also supported by the student protesters.

"It is illegal to campaign abroad," said Mujica, "but what nobody counted is the social networks. On Facebook, I can do anything I want."

He says that people decorating their car--as several were in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood--is also allowed under the rules that govern campaigning from abroad.

Mujica's group has been pushing to boost the rights of Mexicans abroad to vote since 1994, when they held the first mock election in Chicago. The second one was held in 2000.

Raul, who came into the country on a visa that expired, has no path to legalize his status in the United States, nor does he have a political voice in Mexico.

When he worked in Mexico, his vote was placed in line with his union, which supported PRI. But for this round, he would have voted for Lopez Obrador despite his skepticism about the fairness of the election.

"If I really believed that my vote would count, I'd be angrier," he said.

Mujica sees opening the vote to the millions of Mexican nationals who are now unrepresented, even though he doesn't know how they would vote --always the risk in a democracy.

"Democracy is not a controlled process," said Mujica.

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