Immigration and assimilation

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I participated in a panel at the Hudson Institute November 30 on dual citizenship. Hudson's John Fonte presented a paper on dual citizenship and the dangers it poses to the United States. Fonte decried the Mexican statute that allows Mexicans who become U.S. citizens to retain their Mexican citizenship. I agreed with Fonte that dual citizenship does pose problems. But I questioned whether, as a practical matter, these problems are so great. I agreed that Mexican officials want to perpetuate their citizens' loyalty to Mexico, even after they become U.S. citizens. But how great is that loyalty?

One test is whether Mexicans in the United States will cast absentee ballots in Mexico's federal election next July. Until June 2005, absentee balloting was very limited in Mexico: In the July 2000 federal election there were, as I recall, a few voting stations set up in border cities with a limited number of absentee ballots. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the ruling party from 1929 to 2000, was leery of absentee voting, for fear that Mexicans in the United States would be likely to vote for the National Action Party (PAN), whose candidate, Vicente Fox, won in 2000. Apart from the limited absentee balloting in the border cities, Mexicans living in the United States had to return to their home towns in Mexico to vote in 2000. Some actually did. On Election Day 2000 I was interviewing voters with the help of an interpreter. One young man responded in excellent English and said that he was a lawyer in Austin and had flown down to Mexico City to vote. I encountered another man who had flown in from Atlanta to vote.

In June 2005 Mexico's Congress voted to allow absentee voting. The Mexican government distributed 1 million absentee voter forms in the United States. But, according to this story in the January 17 Washington Post, only 16,000 Mexicans in this country filled out the form and registered. The article quotes various experts who try to explain this by saying that many Mexicans in the United States no longer have their Mexican voting cards—holographic plastic cards with a fingerprint and photo, far more elaborate than the identification required for voting in the United States. Under the Mexican law, such people have to go back to Mexico and reregister and, the experts explain, illegal immigrants don't want to do that.

But this explanation cannot account for the fact that 984,000 of 1 million registration forms were not returned. Many of the estimated 11 million Mexican citizens in the United States are here legally. And many surely have their Mexican voting cards with them. Evidently these people aren't strongly motivated to vote in Mexico. Their loyalty and their commitment to Mexico are evidently not so strong.

Why? Consider the reaction of a Mexican I interviewed some years ago in Huntington Park, Calif. I asked him whether he wanted to see the Mexican system of government and politics here in the United States. I have seldom seen anyone laugh so heartily. Most Mexicans know that their government and politics are, alas, seriously dysfunctional. Less so than 20 years ago, certainly, but still dysfunctional. The number of Mexicans who want to re-create the Mexican system in the United States is probably not much higher than the number of professors of Chicano studies at our universities. It brings to mind the comment of (I believe) George Orwell, that you have to be awfully smart to believe something that stupid.

The choices facing Mexican voters in this election are arguably less attractive than those in 2000. The PRI candidate this time is Roberto Madrazo, generally considered a hack politician at best; many see him as a practitioner of corrupt politics. The PRI candidate in 2000 had a cleaner record. The candidate of the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has made a record as a tribune of the poor as mayor of Mexico City and is currently leading in the polls. But many Mexicans find his record disturbing. The PAN candidate this time, Felipe Calderon, has a better reputation. But he is less well known and a less vibrant candidate than Fox was in 2000.

In any case, a pathetically small number of Mexicans in the United States have chosen to take advantage of the absentee voting law. That tells us, I think, that the dangers of dual citizenship are not as disturbing as John Fonte thinks.