07/10/2012 08:54 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Enrique Peña Nieto, PRI, and Immigration: Will History Repeat Itself?

Enrique Peña Nieto (EPN) will be Mexico's next president, assuming he endures the scandal that is escalating around his election, which includes allegations of media manipulation, irregularities at polling places, inconsistencies in ballot counts, and $5 million in voter-wooing prepaid gift cards. Given that EPN is ultimately victorious, his campaign slogan, "Because You Know Me," could prove telling on both sides of the border.

While many of the details of Peña Nieto's personal life remain fuzzy at best, his Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) uninterrupted, 70-year rule of Mexico, which ended in 2000, provided ample opportunity for intimate familiarity with its legacy of corruption. We may not know EPN, but we are well acquainted with the PRI, which is precisely why Mexicans--and US-based Latino community advocates, such as the staff of my Chicago-based policy shop--wait with bated breath to see if history will repeat itself, particularly around immigration.

As the Mexico and the United States' respective six- and four-year election cycles coincide in 2012, they intersect around the issues of immigration and economics. Just as they are hot-button issues in both countries today, they were also top-of-mind in the 1980s and 1990s. These years marked the heyday of the PRI's much-scrutinized rule in Mexico, and also a period of record-breaking rates of immigration to the United States.

As Mexico crumbled under a massive currency devaluation, a crippling trade agreement, and the culmination of decades of institutionalized corruption, the number of Mexican immigrants in the United States doubled from 1980-1990, and then more than doubled again from 1990-2000. In cities like Chicago, these new immigrants overwhelmingly came from PRI strongholds, including places like Michoacán and Guerrero, states whose numbers continue to comprise nearly 25 percent of Chicago's large Mexican-origin population.

Fast-forward to 2012: How much of a coincidence is it that Mexico's break from the PRI--which occurred in 2000 with the historic election of the National Action Party's (PAN) Vicente Fox and then again in 2006 with the election of Felipe Calderon, also of the PAN--coincided with a period of relative economic prosperity in Mexico, coupled with dramatically lower immigration rates to the United States? As Mexico's economy is poised to grow 3.7 percent this year, significantly higher than the 2 percent forecasted for the troubled United States, it isn't surprising that Mexican immigration to this country is at a net zero.

To be fair, the PAN's track record is not without blemishes--it has nearly 60,000 of them, casualties from its poorly-mounted drug war, a number that Peña Nieto has promised to halve. And despite overall growth, Mexico's real wages are currently stagnant, and under-employment is high. But a return to the PRI's dark legacy of deep-seated corruption will do little to advance the economy, pull the country from the grips of its powerful cartels, or keep the Mexican immigration rate in check. Now more than ever, our countries' shared fates depend on the triumph of democracy in Mexico and the extent to which the PRI's troubled history stays firmly in the past. Mexico can afford another wave of massive migration no more than the United States' broken immigration system and fragile economy are in a position to accommodate one.

How well do we know Peña Nieto? Too well, it seems. Given the current scandals surrounding his election, history appears to be repeating itself already. We hope to be proven wrong in December, when the PRI will likely transition into power. Mexicans are entitled to the Mexican version of the proverbial American Dream--being able to find economic prosperity in Mexico. Immigration should be a choice, not an economic last resort created by a government that puts its own interests before those of its people.