Experts: Mexico Harasses Immigrants As It Criticizes Arizona Immigration Law

Chris Hawley, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), May. 27, 2010

Arizona’s new law directing local police to take a greater role in enforcing immigration rules has brought a lot of criticism from Mexico, the largest source of illegal immigrants in the United States. But, in Mexico, undocumented immigrants say they suffer even worse treatment from corrupt authorities.

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Meanwhile, Mexican police freely engage in racial profiling, harassing Central American migrants while ignoring thousands of American retirees living illegally in Mexico, immigration experts say.

Mexico already has an Arizona-style statute requiring local police to check IDs. That clause has fed an epidemic of kidnappings, rapes and other atrocities against migrants because victims are afraid to talk to police, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission says. A bill eliminating the rule has been stalled in the Mexican Senate since March.

Mexican officials say they’ve been trying to improve treatment of immigrants by softening some of the most restrictive parts of Mexico’s immigration law since 2008.

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Dangerous territory

In one six-month period from September 2008 to February 2009, at least 9,758 migrants were kidnapped and held for ransom in Mexico, 91 of them with the direct participation of Mexican police, a report by the National Human Rights Commission says. Other migrants are routinely stopped and shaken down for bribes, it says.

A separate survey conducted during one month in 2008 at 10 migrant shelters showed Mexican authorities were behind migrant attacks in 35 of 240 cases, or 15 percent. Most of the abuses against migrants are committed by gangs and migrant smugglers.

Most migrants in Mexico are Central Americans passing through on their way to the United States, human-rights groups say. Others are Guatemalans who live and work along Mexico’s southern border, mainly as farmworkers, maids, or in bars and restaurants.

One of the largest populations of illegal migrants in Mexico is made up of American retirees who enter as tourists, then overstay their visas, said Patricia de los Rios, director of the migrant-affairs program at Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. Some Americans even work in Mexico illegally, giving English lessons, running tourism-related businesses or telecommuting.

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The Central American migrants headed to the United States travel mainly on freight trains, stopping to rest and beg for food at rail crossings like the one in Tultitlan, an industrial suburb of Mexico City.

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Defying change

Abuses by Mexican authorities have persisted even as Mexico has relaxed its rules against illegal immigrants in recent years.

In 2008, the Mexican government softened the punishment for undocumented migrants, from a maximum 10 years in prison to a maximum fine of $461. Most detainees are simply taken to detention centers and put on buses for home.

Mexican law calls for six to 12 years of prison and up to $46,000 in fines for anyone who shelters or transports illegal immigrants, but the nation’s Supreme Court ruled in March 2008 that the law applies only to people who do it for money.

For years, the Mexican government has allowed charity groups to openly operate migrant shelters, where travelers can rest for a few days on their journey north. The government also has a special unit of immigration agents, known as Grupo Beta, that patrols the countryside in orange pickup trucks, helping immigrants who are in trouble.

At the same time, however, Article 67 of Mexico’s immigration law requires that all authorities, “whether federal, local or municipal,” demand to see visas if approached by a foreigner, and to hand over any undocumented migrants to immigration authorities.

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To discourage migrants from speaking out about abuse, Mexican authorities often tell detainees they will have to stay longer in detention centers if they file a complaint, said Vertíz, of the Human Rights Center.

A March 2007 order allows Mexican immigration agents to give “humanitarian visas” to migrants who have suffered crimes in Mexico.

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