Mr. Bush Goes to Mexico

February 15, 2001

On his visit to Mexico this week, President George W. Bush could learn how to attract the Latino vote. Mexican immigrants, dear to the heart of the Mexican president, may be the key to the constituency Mr. Bush needs if he wants to lengthen his stay at the White House or bolster Republican congressional ranks in 2002.

Not long ago Mexico considered migrants renegades (pochos—”bleached white”). In the new Mexico they are heroes. President Vicente Fox’s first public act on taking office last December was to welcome leaders of U.S. Mexican hometown associations at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. Mr. Bush, who will visit Mr. Fox’s ranch on Friday, might want to ask his host about that event.

Courting Latinos was undoubtedly part of Mr. Bush calculation in choosing Mexico for his first foreign trip. Two-thirds of Latinos are of Mexican origin. Latinos are our fastest growing minority and will be overtaking African Americans as the country’s most numerous one just when Mr. Bush seeks re-election in 2004. A third of Latinos voted for Mr. Bush last November, lower than expectations for the Spanish-speaking Texan.

Until just before the elections, surveys showed Mr. Bush actually leading among Latinos by several points. His Latino vote nose dived in the final week when GOP congressmen opposed a bill, endorsed by the Democrats. The bill would have granted amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. Many foreign-born Mexican American voters in particular abandoned Mr. Bush on that last week. That’s a major reason why we had the Florida recount instead of the narrow Bush victory national pollsters had been forecasting.

Could Mr. Bush rectify that by seeking to persuade congressional Republicans to embrace the new round of amnesty Mr. Fox will be proposing on Friday? That will be a hard sell, especially if the economy has not rebounded and if California’s energy problems persist.

There’s another remedy for Mr. Bush’s Latino problem. It’s those Mexican American hometown associations (HTAs) Mr. Fox is so fond of. The Mexican president embraces the HTAs for both Mexican and American political reasons. Mexican emigrants to the U.S. send $8 billion a year back home, providing Mexico its third largest source of foreign exchange. That makes migrants politically influential, too. Mr. Fox’s lieutenants ascribe some of his electoral success to his campaign visits with Mexican hometown associations in California and Illinois. He has promised the HTAs that proposals for amnestying several million Mexican migrants in the United States and for developing a guest worker program will top his agenda for his meeting with Mr. Bush.
But what works for Mr. Fox could work for Mr. Bush. Many of the HTA members are citizens and vote in U.S. elections. Moreover, the HTAs are the preeminent Latino immigrant institution with considerable influence, especially among first-generation Latinos who hear their radio spots and attend their soccer games, beauty pageants and other fund-raisers.

HTAs have surged in the last decade. Last year The Los Angeles Times estimated that there were 1,500 of them. They can be found in the settled Mexican colonies of Los Angeles, Chicago and Texas, but HTAs have accompanied Mexican immigrants to nearly every part of the country. There are two dozen as far away from Mexico as New York City. (In the greater Washington area there are a score of Salvadoran HTAs.) Federations of Mexican HTAs have as many as 30,000 members.

These facts have not been lost on the Democrats. Last summer the AFL-CIO allied with several federations of Mexican hometown associations to campaign for that immigrant amnesty bill. However, many HTA members are uncomfortable with the liberal agenda of the labor unions and the main Hispanic organizations. They cling to traditional values of family, hard work and self-reliance, thought of as Republican virtues.

The hometown association seemingly has gone unnoticed by Republicans. Yet first-generation immigrant Latinos are a logical Republican political base. As hometown associations redraw the political landscape in the burgeoning Latino immigrant communities, Mr. Bush might take a cue from Mr. Fox and get in touch with the Mexican HTAs.

Already it is no stretch to call both presidents compassionate conservatives. Mr. Fox has appointed liberals and opposition party members to key positions and opened negotiations with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, just as Mr. Bush has reached out to key Democrats, the Black Caucus and African American ministers.

But for Mr. Bush a more reachable objective is the Latinos. A White House event with HTA leaders would fit in nicely with the president’s new community-based political initiative and give him a chance to roll out his Spanish.

If Mr. Bush can figure out how to cultivate this constituency as effectively as Mr. Fox has, the two presidents may find they have more in common than ranches, cowboy boots and the Rio Grande.