SAN DIEGO – Mexico's new president may dissuade some immigrants from returning home, despite promising economic opportunities there and a faltering U.S. job market.
The vast majority of the 40,000 Mexican expatriates who voted in Sunday's election cast ballots against President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto. Many immigrants said Monday that they were shocked his Institutional Revolutionary Party — which largely convinced them to leave their homeland — has returned to power.
"I think most immigrants kind of fled Mexico because of the PRI, and they still carry visions of a PRI that was corrupt and murderous," said Guadalupe Sandoval, an 18-year-old San Diego college student who said she closely watched the race. "I'm definitely surprised."
President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party, which toppled the PRI in 2000, garnered the most votes abroad. That contrasted sharply with the outcome of the elections in Mexico, where the PRI was helped by fatigue over Calderon's escalation of the drug war that has claimed more than 47,500 lives.
During its long reign, the PRI was known for keeping a lid on organized crime that operated back then without the levels of violence seen today. Pena Nieto has promised to reduce the bloodshed.
The PRI won only about 38 percent of the vote to regain the presidency.
Sandoval's family left Mexico a year before the PRI ended its 71-year rule. She said they would have considered returning if Pena Nieto's top challenger, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, had won.
Illegal immigration has dramatically dropped since they left because of the crackdown at the U.S. border after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the slowing of the U.S. economy.
More than 40,000 Mexicans voted from 91 countries in Sunday's elections, exercising a right they gained in 2006.
PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota garnered 17,169 votes from abroad, according to preliminary results released Monday from Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute.
Lopez Obrador got 15,878 votes from abroad, while Pena Nieto received 6,359.
Pena Nieto immediately went to work to counter claims that the old PRI was back, saying in his victory speech: "We're a new generation. There is no return to the past."
He talked of security, commerce and infrastructure, but didn't bring up the traditional Mexican issue of U.S. immigration reform to help the 12 million Mexicans who live in the United States.
Pena Nieto said he wanted "a relationship that will allow the productive integration of North America."
But 56-year-old Mexican immigrant Justiniano Rosario, who lives in New York, said he sees a downward spiral for the homeland that he left 27 years ago.
"There is too much violence and little honesty among politicians. It's a circus and with the PRI, nothing is going to change," said Rosario, who works transporting boxes of food supplies for a local warehouse. "The PRI governed for so many years and lied to the people. They are not going to resolve the problem of violence."
He added: "I don't believe in any of the candidates — but I believe a lot less in the PRI."
Bricia Lopez, co-owner of the Mexican restaurant La Guelaguetza, based in Los Angeles, agreed.
"I'm sad," she said. "I really thought this election could bring changes on how things work. Now, it's the same old thing. It's not fair to the people in México who don't have anything. It's upsetting. It's not fair to the poor people I see every time I go to the poor towns of Oaxaca."
Mexicans voted in Sunday's elections for a known quantity after becoming widely disappointed that the euphoria over the ousting of the PRI in national elections in 2000 did not usher in the dramatic changes they had hoped to see.
Pedro Ramos, founder of a Los Angeles-based group representing immigrants from the state of Puebla, said he understands that frustration.
"It went very badly for us the change," he said. "In Pena Nieto, we see an institution that knows how to govern. Now we are hoping that he will see us (migrants) and will see that we are the ones who have sent home money and who have projected a good image of Mexico abroad."
The White House said it expected the close relationship that the U.S. has enjoyed with Calderon's administration to continue under Pena Nieto.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland congratulated Pena Nieto's "apparent" victory and the Mexican people for demonstrating "their strong commitment to democratic values through a free, fair and transparent electoral process." Nuland declined to answer questions related to a possible shift in Mexico's anti-narcotics strategy.
"We're not going to predict changes in policy one way or another," Nuland said. "But we are committed to working in partnership with Mexico to meet the evolving challenges posed by transnational criminal organizations, and we expect that that great cooperation is going to continue with the Pena Nieto administration when it is seated."
Mexican immigration expert Wayne Cornelius said that exasperation over Calderon's war against the cartels may have caused Mexicans to vote the PRI back into power, but what many may be forgetting is the PRI also was largely responsible for major economic crises that rocked the nation three different times since the 1970s.
The drug war has overshadowed Calderon's impressive record in managing the Mexican economy, which has a long history of plummeting whenever the U.S. economy hiccups, he said.
The recession may have slowed illegal immigration to the United States, but it also has caused those immigrants who are here to become more rooted. And, he said, he does not see Mexico's next president changing that.
"This is a population that has become more and more stable over the last 15 years, and with the great recession in the U.S., it has had an effect of anchoring the Mexican population more firmly because they fear losing the foothold that they already had in the U.S. labor market by going back," said Cornelius, director emeritus of the Center for U.S.-Mexican studies at the University of California San Diego.
Associated Press writers Claudia Torrens in New York, Edwin Tamara in Los Angeles, Bradley Klapper in Washington; and E. Eduardo Castillo, Katherine Corcoran and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.