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In Mexico, volunteers dig deep to get out the (US) vote

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Some of the very people Donald Trump has characterized as a threat are eligible to have a say in the outcome of the US election.

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    U.S. Democrats living in Mexico attend Labor Day picnic and register to vote ahead of November 8 General Election, in Mexico City, Mexico, September 3, 2016.
    Edgard Garrido/Reuters
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In the corner of a bustling Texas-style barbecue joint here, where an oversized American flag looms and a band belts out Spanish-language rockabilly, a group of diners occupy two picnic tables, intently focused on their computer screens.

“Vota en EEUU,” reads a whiteboard perched above one of the tables, festooned with the red, white, and green colors of the Mexican flag. “Ciudadanos Americanos Registrense Aqui Hoy."

The voter registration drive, organized by the Mexico City chapter of Democrats Abroad, is like many global efforts to get out the expatriate vote. But this year, volunteers across the country are pushing to connect with a harder-to-reach subsection – “American Mexicans,” or voters who were born in the US or are naturalized citizens, but are primarily Spanish-speaking and reside in Mexico.

Encouraging Americans living outside the US to vote is nothing new. But Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s multiple jabs at Mexico, combined with his impromptu and poorly received visit last month, has many here feeling that the stakes are higher in this election. And the intertwined histories, migration, and trade of Mexico and the US have created a scenario where some of the very people Mr. Trump has characterized as a threat are eligible to have a say in the outcome of the election.

“This is the first election that we’ve focused on Spanish-preference [US] citizens in Mexico,” says Larry Pihl, the Get Out the Vote Chair for Democrats Abroad-Mexico, who spoke by telephone from Monterrey, where he was conducting voter outreach.

“There’s a lot of traction to register voters this year, and Trump has helped infinitely,” says Erik Markeset, a volunteer with Democrats Abroad who doesn’t identify with a particular political party. He’s flipping through a thick book listing US voter jurisdictions while he helps register a young woman from Colorado.

William Barb registered to vote in a US election from Mexico for the first time this year.

“There are a lot of people I know here who have family in the US, and they tell me, ‘If I could vote, I’d do it to help my parents, my siblings, my friends,’” he says.

Mr. Barb’s father was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and moved to Mexico as a young adult, where he met his wife and started a family. The younger Barb became a dual citizen, but identifies primarily as Mexican. He, his wife, and their two children moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to escape the “difficult situation in Mexico,” but moved back after nearly nine years, and say they have no plans to return. 

“We didn’t know how to vote in the US election from Mexico, but we knew we legally could,” Barb says. With help from an American neighbor, his entire family has filed the required paperwork via email and plans to cast ballots by mail on Nov. 8.

Returning to Mexico

Latinos in the US are playing an increasingly important role in elections, making up roughly 13 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential race. This year that could grow to between 15 percent and 17 percent, predicts Jorge Bustamante, founder of the College of the Northern Border, near Tijuana.

Mexican-Americans in the US make up more than half of the Latino voting population. And the increase in Mexicans in the US – some with dual citizenship – returning to Mexico over the past five years means that the “American Mexican” population in Mexico is “increasingly important” in US politics, says Dr. Bustamante, who is also a professor of sociology at Notre Dame in Indiana. “But of course it’s still a minority within a minority.”

“Everything will depend on who wins,” he says. “If Trump wins, the question of immigration could be a very, very serious problem that will affect bilateral relations in a very drastic way. If Clinton wins it’s going to be not as risky, but it’s not going to be very rosy.”

As a result, the topic of the US presidential race “is one of the most important subjects people are talking about after dinner” in Mexico, Bustamante says.

Barb agrees. “It’s important to me to vote in this election,” he says, adding that he voted in 2008 while living in California, but doesn’t vote in Mexican elections because he doesn’t feel it makes a difference. “Even if I don’t live there, I’m voting for what’s best for other Latinos living in the United States.”

His daughter, Yosette, who is finishing her thesis in psychology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, says that before she got help registering to vote, she had friends pestering her to figure it out on her own. “People would tell me, ‘you have dual nationality? Vote! It’s important! This is how you help,’ ” she says.

“Even if I don’t think I will go back [to the US], I have every right to vote as an American citizen,” she says. “I have every right to be against racism. And American politics influence a lot in my country. We are neighbors; what happens there affects things here.”

Trying to find the voters

Between 1 million and 2 million Americans live in Mexico, according to research compiled for Democrats Abroad in Mexico by Admix Digital Strategies. They believe that number breaks down to about half a million US-born or naturalized Spanish-speaking Americans, like Barb and his family, and 1 million expatriates, or English-speaking permanent residents and long-term visitors.

By these estimates, that puts more Americans living in Mexico than all of Europe combined (excluding military), according to 2011 European data from The Association of Americans Resident Overseas.

But finding Spanish-preference US citizens to register to vote is more challenging than reaching out to run-of-the-mill expats.

Democrats Abroad volunteers in Mexico have taken to local and national media, particularly following the uproar over Trump’s Aug. 31 visit, to spread the word about the process among Spanish-preference Americans here. They’ve launched a Spanish-language landing page, Vota Desde Mexico, and volunteers are traveling to border states, where the bulk of “American Mexicans” are believed to reside.

At the barbecue joint on Saturday, curious Americans pass by the voter registration table to sign up – and to inquire about volunteering. Liz O’Connor, a PhD candidate at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, takes a handful of forms to hand out to classmates and professors. By Monday, she’s registered two students and one professor. Other volunteers have agreed to display registration forms in their workplaces, and there are plans to set up in certain malls where there’s a better chance of stumbling upon the desired voters.

“It’s harder to reach ‘American Mexicans,’ ” says Mr. Markeset. “There are countless stories of Mexicans born in the US while their parents were getting their PhDs, and then there are others that were born there to [undocumented] migrant workers. These aren’t populations you’ll necessarily find in the same place in Mexico,” he says.

“These [voter registration] efforts are very much grassroots…. And it’s a completely non-partisan effort, even though we are the Democrats Abroad,” Markeset says.

Republicans Overseas did not respond to multiple requests for interviews on their voter registration efforts in Mexico. When asked if there is a constituency of Mexicans here – eligible to vote or not – that support this year’s Republican candidate, Bustamante, the professor, responds with a long pause. “No,” he says. “Not that I know of.”

Another volunteer, Bruno Chazaro, was born in Mexico but became a naturalized citizen after living in the US 15 years. He says he could see himself one day returning to the States, but that’s not top of mind as he prepares to cast his absentee ballot this year.

“This election isn’t just about the US,” Mr. Chazaro says. “The winner will make decisions that will reach across the world.”

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