By: Angela Kocherga | Dallas News
A few years ago, Ben and Bonnie Benoit considered returning to the United States, believing it was time to go home. Now as they follow the U.S. presidential election from their ranch home in Mexico’s wine country, they’re glad they didn’t.
What they see as divisive politics in the U.S. — the presidential campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump — confirms their decision to stay in Mexico. Sometimes as they watch and read the news, the Benoits are filled with dismay.
“Someone like Trump comes along and I can’t believe the country I thought was in existence … is not,” said Ben, 76, who retired in Baja California, where he and his wife make wine. “I think we’re all in shock. I think we’re also terribly embarrassed.”
The U.S. presidential contest is generating buzz across the globe, where expatriates are in a frenzy about politics back home. Only Canada has more Americans than Mexico, but Trump’s Mexico bashing has made being American a bit more awkward these days.
“A lot of our Mexican friends are frightened of him,” Bonnie said.
In a close race, the vote abroad is that much more critical. Democrats and Republicans in Mexico say they’re seeing a huge spike in interest as they organize the “get out the vote” effort. Many are hosting large gatherings, including debate-watching parties.
The votes of expats, especially those registered in battleground states, can make all the difference, as was the case back in 2000, when George W. Bush beat Al Gore in a controversial election that ended up before the Supreme Court.
“The 2000 election raised awareness of the potential role of overseas Americans’ ballots. Admissibility of overseas ballots was key in that election,” said Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels, a senior lecturer in migration and politics at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies in Belgium and author ofMigrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe.
“Overseas Americans are not polled; they could indeed provide winning margins in close elections,” she said.
James F. Hollifield, a professor of politics and science and director of the Tower Center at Southern Methodist University, said, “[Expats] are on the front lines of American foreign policy and will be among the first to feel the repercussions of a more isolationist stance.”
Americans in Mexico
At least a million Americans live throughout Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department, many concentrated in scenic colonial and coastal towns, from San Miguel de Allende to Valle de Guadalupe, which is just far enough from the hectic pace of life in the U.S. but close enough to feel connected to friends and family and stay involved in politics.
Like many expats in Mexico, the Benoits are watching the presidential debates. They brought a homemade tortilla pie and Zinfandel to the first debate-watching party at a friend’s house. They’re looking forward to the second debate Sunday.
“I’m glued to the television,” said Bonnie Benoit, a Democrat and staunch Clinton supporter.
Trump supporters in Mexico are also closely following the election.
“I think I like him more than Ronald Reagan,” said Ed Cage, 72, a Texan now living in Ajijic with his wife, Karen. The Cages lived in North Texas for decades before moving nearly eight years ago.
“Our business cards read ‘retired in paradise’ and it really is,” said Karen Cage, 70.
“I love Mexico. I love the people,” said Ed Cage. But he shares Trump’s concerns about Mexicans crossing the border. “There are a number of criminals going up there. Not all of them, not all of them. They’re mostly good people, but they’re taking away American jobs.”
Like other Americans in Mexico, the Cages get asked about Trump. Recently Karen fielded a question from their handyman.
“Alberto said ‘what do you think of Mr. Trump?’. I said I love him. He nearly fell off the ladder,” said Cage. She said she tells Mexicans who ask “He (Trump) likes you. He just wants you to come across legally.”
But for some Republicans in Mexico, Trump is not an easy choice. Consider Larry Rubin, 42, head of the Republicans Abroad in Mexico group. Rubin, 42, will vote absentee for Trump in Ohio, a key battleground state, but he does not agree with the Republican candidate’s views on trade.
“NAFTA is like this hidden jewel that benefits a lot of small and medium businesses from the U.S.,” said Rubin.
Rubin admits many Republicans in Mexico are reluctant to openly discuss their preference for Donald Trump. Unlike previous election years when Republicans held large gatherings in Mexico City, some, including Rubin, are hosting private dinner parties to watch the debates.
The Trump presidential campaign has led to some uneasy conversations for Americans living in Mexico. At a grocery store in Mazatlan, Jody Quinnell gets approached by Mexican shoppers who complain about Trump. She quickly tells them she’s not voting for the Republican candidate.
Quinnell is chair of Democrats Abroad in Mexico, which has chapters in Mazatlan, Mexico City, Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende, and Puerto Vallarta.
She said she’s appalled by Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric “These are people we work with, neighbors, friends,” she said.
From her home with a view of Lake Chapala, Maureen Jones, 67, a former Dallas resident, is watching the election with growing concern about her homeland.
“As a longtime member of the League of Women Voters I am disappointed that so little time in this very important presidential campaign is being dedicated to real issues, said Jones.
Jones served as an election judge in Oak Cliff and was active in the League of Women voters for many years before moving with her husband to Ajijic in the western state of Jalisco in 2010.
“We have requested our ballots and plan to vote from here,” said Jones. “I am very excited to have the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton for president of the U.S., not just because she is a woman but also because she is highly qualified.”
Indeed, Trump’s frequent references to Mexico on the campaign trail and trip to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto hit close to home for Americans living south of the border.
“We were shocked and disgusted that Peña Nieto invited him here,” said Margaret Van Every, a resident of Ajijic and a Democrat. “His plans to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it is a huge joke. His insults about the immigrant murderers and rapists are outrageous beyond belief.”
For many American who moved to Mexico, the border wall is at the center of a passionate debate.
“Humpty Trumpty is as full of [expletive] as a Christmas goose,” said Dan Scher, a longtime resident of San Miguel de Allende who plans to vote for Clinton. “The higher the wall, the longer the tunnels.”
But some Americans living in Mexico support the idea of a erecting a big barrier along the entire border.
“I want that wall built,” said Karen Cage. And the Texan would help cover the cost if citizens could make private contributions. “I would buy a couple of miles of tile for that wall.”