July 27, 2001

Dollars For Fox, Votes For Bush - Two Reasons Why the "Amnesty" Word Won't Go Away

By Martin Espinoza

After more than a year of promoting open borders between the United States and Mexico, last week Mexican President Vicente Fox suddenly toned down his demand for amnesty for some three million Mexican immigrants illegally residing in the United States.

Mexican president, Vicente Fox (right), visits with California Governor Gray Davis during one of his many visits to California. FILE PHOTO.

It was partly Fox's campaign for open borders that caused President Bush to assign a high-level task force to examine possible immigration reforms. But shortly after Washington conservatives blasted Bush for even considering amnesty, Fox softened his stance. Both Bush and Fox now essentially agree that a guest-worker program is the way to go, even though a month earlier Fox criticized such a program as piecemeal and unacceptable. At the core of the amnesty fuss is a critical issue: how will both Mexico and the U.S. best take advantage of a growing political and economic constituency.

More than any other Mexican president before him, Fox has sought to strengthen the country's ties with its absentee nationals. The reason is money; the dollars immigrants send back to Mexico — a staggering $7 billion last year — form Mexico's third largest industry, behind oil exports and tourism.

But that is only a portion of the dollars that could be spent in Mexico if undocumented immigrants were allowed to freely cross the border. Many stay in the U.S. and do not risk being caught upon their return. Trapped, each year they spend billions in America, they grow roots, buy cars, furniture, appliances, and homes.

Fox would like to see more of that money spent in Mexico, and he has encouraged Mexicans in the U.S. to help fund business ventures and public works projects. He has even said he would match the amount of money Mexican immigrants send back to Mexico dollar for dollar. U.S. cities with large Mexican immigrant populations were regular stops on Fox's campaign trail during last year's historic presidential election, which ended the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Mexican immigrants now comprise one of Mexico's most important political constituencies. But it's dollars that Fox is seeking, not votes. There is no absentee voting in Mexico.

Integrating Mexico into a North American market is an attractive prospect for Fox; recent Mexican migration to the U.S. has helped bolster Hispanic buying power to $348 billion. According to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, last year companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Phillip Morris, McDonald's, and Sears, Roebuck & Co., spent a combined total of $2.4 billion on TV, radio, and print advertising in the Hispanic market. That's a growth of 25 percent from 1999.

While Fox has dollars on the brain, American politicians such as President Bush are more directly concerned with the votes America's new citizens will cast in future elections.

Last year, the number of registered Hispanic voters grew to more than eight million, up from five million in 1994. In the 2000 election, most Hispanics remained loyal Democrats, though pre-election polls showed that many maintained a favorable opinion of Bush. Among Hispanic voters last year, 45 percent were born abroad, compared to 20 percent ten years ago.

That 45 percent is more likely to vote Democrat than Republican, although politicians such as Bush are out to change that. Back in May, President Bush granted an interview to the immensely popular Don Francisco, host of the Spanish-language variety show, S'bado Gigante (Giant Saturday). During the White House interview, Francisco spoke in English and translated Bush's responses. But on several occasions, Bush broke into his own brand of Spanglish, in a somewhat symbolic but frustrated attempt to address the country's changing demographic landscape. Granting amnesty to three million undocumented Mexicans would have serious repercussions on American politics. One need only consider the last big amnesty program in 1986 and its effects on recent elections in California. After Bush and Fox backed down from a possible amnesty agreement, U.S. House Democrats wasted no time taking up the issue.

It may be a while before leaders of the Republican Party are as willing as President Bush to speak Spanglish.

Martin Espinoza writes regularly on immigration issues from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Return to the Frontpage