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Mexican-American Voting Difficult

June 30, 2000

MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) _ When Mexico chooses a president on Sunday, millions of U.S. residents will be eligible to cast a ballot. Few will be able to do so.

Voting outside Mexico is still banned, despite a six-year effort to reach out to compatriots in the United States. That means the 7 million Mexican adults living on U.S. soil _ about one-tenth of all eligible voters _ will have to cross into Mexico to vote, and there are only 64 special booths set up along the border to handle all of them.

``We don’t know what to expect,″ said Berenice Rendon-Talavera, Mexico’s consul in Brownsville, Texas. ``Right now, it’s unclear how many people will come. That question has never been so big before.″

In the six years since Mexico voted President Ernesto Zedillo into office, the country appeared to reach out to compatriots in the United States with the offer of dual nationality and a promise _ still unfulfilled _ of absentee voting abroad.

Money Mexicans living in the United States wire back to relatives at home makes up Mexico’s third-greatest source of legal income, topped only by oil and tourism. But the obstacles facing those Mexican U.S. residents who wish to vote are formidable.

The few border boting booths available to them already will be clogged with migrant factory workers living in northern Mexico’s industrial cities.

What’s more, ballots will be hard to come by: Each polling center is limited to 750 paper ballots. A legacy of suspicion and fraud, the tight limit on absentee ballots is meant to prevent multiple or fraudulent voters.

``I still feel like it’s my duty _ my duty to vote,″ said Apolonio Rojas, a Houston carpet layer. ``But even if I could go, they wouldn’t have a ballot for me when I got there. That’s their trick.″

The big border city of Tijuana has only 11,250 ballots available for all absentee voters. In Ciudad Juarez there will be only 2,250. Each industrial center has more than 1 million people, and both are magnets for migration from the Mexican interior.

Another factor is that illegal residents are unlikely to risk arrest by border agents just to cast a vote. And with Mexican-American households fanning far into the northern United States, the journey to Mexico will be too long and expensive for many.

``There are too many impediments,″ the Houston immigrant and community organizer Cristobal Hinojosa said. ``Voters here, even the ones who are very interested, won’t be able to make the trip.″

If federal voting registration cards were misplaced during a hectic or illicit move across the border, forget it: no card, no vote. Mexico’s electoral institute estimates 1.5 million voting cards still are carried by U.S. residents.

A government proposal to allow absentee voting in the United States died in the Mexican Senate last year.

Still, in 1998, Mexico revised its constitution to accept Mexican ``nationality″ of those who also take U.S. citizenship _ a measure that reached out to Mexican-Americans even if it did not affect voting rights.

Some immigrants are ignoring the obstacles.

From Chicago and Austin, Texas, eye-catching caravans are winding their way south. One group from Yakima, Wash., set out on horseback before loading the animals onto trailers for the drive to Mexico.

Other voting will be quieter: Border families can easily slip into Mexico, cast their vote without fanfare and get home in time for Sunday dinner.

``People see there is a possibility of making a change in Mexico,″ said Felipe Aguirre, a California union organizer who will join a group of voters headed south to the Mexican polls. ``People are really mad at the government.″

After 71 years of unbroken rule by one party, many immigrants blame the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, for the bleak economic straits that forced them to seek their fortunes on foreign soil.

In the polls, National Action Party candidate Vicente Fox is running about even with the PRI’s Francisco Labastida. The ruling party has probably never come so close to losing.

``It’s an anger, a very personal type of vengeance,″ said Jose Hinojosa, professor of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American, just across the border from Reynosa, Mexico. ``To want to get back at the PRI because you’ve had to leave your hometown.″

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