Mexico: Migrants Getting Political but Not Driving Reform

By Michael S. Danielson*

A large group of people gathers in an airport.

Returning Mexican migrants are greeted upon their arrival in Mexico by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexican migrants who currently live in the United States or have returned home after spending many years abroad have become an important social and political constituency in the Mexican polity, but they do not uniformly enhance local democracy.  A growing body of research indicates that migrants affect the politics of their home towns and home countries through both direct and indirect channels.  Their departure releases pressure on prevailing authorities to reform, and the prospect of future migration causes citizens to disengage from the political process.  Friendships, alliances, and other contacts allow migrants to become intimately involved in their home communities from abroad as they communicate their attitudes and ideologies among themselves and friends and relatives back home.  Returning home with accumulated social, political, and economic capital also enables them to become influential leaders there.

  • Analysis of the municipalities to which U.S.-based migrants provide financial support, for example, shows that migrants are more likely to contribute where migrant civil society has become more deeply institutionalized at the state level and in municipalities and states with longer histories of migration.
  • A survey of more than 400 mayors in Oaxaca shows that migrants returning to their home communities who become mayors are more likely to be members of the popular classes than their non-migrant counterparts, suggesting that migration might be a pathway to power for non-elite individuals. But the same data also show that migrant mayors are just as likely to align with dominant political groups as with opponents of the status quo, suggesting the limits of their transformative and democratizing potential.

Field research shows different outcomes in different states.  In Oaxaca – where the exclusion of migrants from influence has alienated them from the governing party (an attitude further fueled by their experiences of exploitation and resistance as migrants in Mexico and California) – returnees tend to enter the political fray in opposition to dominant powers.  In contrast, the returning migrants who have been most influential in the states of Guanajuato and Zacatecas have tended to be mobilized by and act in support of the dominant parties in their states.  The institutionalization of the state-migrant relationship in these states facilitates migrant social and political engagement with governing parties.

  • Ethnographic data in 12 high-migration municipalities in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas indicate, moreover, that the political engagement of returning migrants resulted in increased political competition that, in all but one case, caused factionalism and a divided opposition at best and deep, violent social conflict at worst. In the remaining six municipalities, dominant political actors either incorporated migrants into the prevailing system by establishing neocorporatist equilibria or successfully blocked the influence of migrant actors all together, despite high levels of migration.

Returning migrants’ political influence will only increase.  The historic flow – some 16 million Mexicans entered the United States in the 50 years since 1965 – has been reversed, as more migrants are returning to Mexico than entering the United States.  The economic, social, cultural, and political ties forged between communities on both sides of the border are growing, and the futures of the two countries are more intertwined than ever.  The economic and social importance of migration in some municipalities helps migrant political actors gain influence back home, and it can open up a pathway to local power for historically excluded social groups, even if – as in the cases that I have examinedthis influence has only rarely translated into fundamental changes in the way that politics are done.  The engagement of millions of Mexican migrants in their home towns has not resulted in thousands of political earthquakes, but rather the Mexican political system is incorporating these new actors without instituting fundamental changes to the way that politics are done.

 January 4, 2018

*Michael S. Danielson is CLALS Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington DC Program.  His new book, Emigrants Get Political: Mexican Migrants Engage Their Home Towns, was published by Oxford University Press.  He has also participated in CLALS’ North America Research Initiative as a Pastor Scholar.

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