Can Mexico's Presidential Hopeful Solve the Immigration Mess?

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RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/GETTY

Andres Manuel López Obrador, presidential candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party

The sun is hammering the town plaza of Teloloapan in Mexico's southern Guerrero state. But thousands of people — mostly poor farmers wearing straw cowboy hats and gaunt faces, their wives clutching cheap umbrellas to try to stay cool — are standing to hear Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the front-runner in Mexico's July 2 presidential race. López, sporting thick garlands of orange and yellow marigolds that supporters toss around his neck at campaign stops, is the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD). Yet as much as the struggling campesinos enjoy hearing his lavish social welfare promises, they're more interested in his business plan — specifically, how he hopes to create Mexican jobs that will keep them from having to cross the border to seek work in the U.S. as illegal immigrants. "We no longer want thousands of our young people abandoning their towns and families every day in order to alleviate their hunger and misery on the other side of the border!" López shouts in a high-pitched voice.

The U.S., it turns out, isn't the only side of the border where illegal immigration is a hot-button issue. It weighs heavily in Mexico's impoverished central and southern regions, where the vast majority of the country's indocumentados — several hundred thousand a year — start out before entering the U.S. And it's a big reason why López, the former mayor of Mexico City, leads in voter polls — much to the chagrin of the Bush Administration, which faces the prospect of a López victory bringing Latin America's stunning recent shift to the political left to America's doorstep.

López is frank about his intention to review the 12-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if he's elected, particularly when it comes to what he calls the "invasion" of cheap food staples from U.S. and Canadian farmers who enjoy generous government subsidies. But his platform also seems to speak to Americans exasperated by rampant illegal immigration, since it focuses on breathing new life — and smarter investment — into Mexico's ever-downtrodden small- and medium-size businesses. Those companies employ two-thirds of the nation's workforce and could be the key to keeping workers at home instead of in railroad boxcars headed north.

On this day, as López speaks, a supporter carries onto the stage a cage holding two large, squawking chachalaca birds. They wear the names of López's two major opponents and symbolize for his campaign the anti-López, anti-leftist hysteria he says they're trying to create. "We're going to rescue our rural countryside, which is being crushed by [free trade with the U.S.], and we're going to generate wealth again in Mexico!" he shouts. Farmers like Manuel Garcia, 48, who says he has five brothers working illegally in the U.S., roar in approval. "I'm with AMLO [López] because at this point we've got nothing to lose," says Garcia. "We can make better money in the U.S., but we're also tired of the suffering that comes from crossing the border."

López's message has galvanized Mexico's working-class voters, who are pouring out for his whirlwind campaign stops through small, dusty pueblos like Teloloapan. Many are disillusioned with the progress of Mexico's democratization — especially its economic democratization — under current President Vicente Fox, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), who in 2000 overthrew the venal and authoritarian Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for seven decades.

A charismatic social activist from the poor southern state of Tabasco, López connects with Mexico's underdogs, especially when he stumps for deeper reform of Mexico's epically corrupt public life (though his own party had hardly been immune to graft in recent years). He promises to slash not only his presidential salary but push for a Constitutional amendment to cut and cap those of all high-ranking government officials. "You can't have a rich government and a poor population!" he insists in his speeches. "We have to transform the way we conduct politics here, without the arrogant, mediocre, lying thieves who injure this country more than any other problem Mexico has!"

Not that López doesn't present his own potential problems. His probity is rarely questioned, but critics say as mayor he often displayed an authoritarian streak. His plans to redirect hundreds of million of dollars from Mexico's budget to social projects like pensions for the elderly and utility subsidies are unrealistic to many analysts, if not downright delusional.

But his populist record while running Mexico's gargantuan capital was largely positive. And opponents' attempts to paint him as a Mexican Hugo Chávez, the radically leftist and stridently anti-U.S. President of Venezuela, have gained little traction. Part of that is because López takes pains to pair his social welfare ambitions with an investment-friendly business sense that Wall Street, for example, has found appealing in other modern Latin leftists like Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

It also won over construction worker Gabino Barrera, 33, at a campaign stop last week in Iguala, Guerrero. Barrera worked for years as an indocumentado in Los Angeles, where four brothers still live as illegals. "I'm not earning enough back here," he says, "but I don't want to have to leave my wife and four children again. I hope, I believe, that AMLO is capable of helping me out in that regard." If so, López could become just as popular in U.S. town squares as he is south of the border.