Just by the words used to describe it, it is a phenomenon. The tide, the wave, the flood; all are illustrative words that create an image of an all powerful force of nature. These characterizations, used — often pejoratively — by American immigration critics, refer to the number of Mexican immigrants seeking refuge in the United States, a figure estimated at between 12 and 15 million individuals.
But while illegal U.S. border crossings each day are enough to create self-important border posses, anti-immigration icons like Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio or serve as easy applause lines for political candidates, there is another border war going on — this one deep inside Mexico.
And, not unlike what U.S. border officials are dealing with, Mexico also finds itself looking for new ways to discourage southern immigration while trying to adopt more thoughtful laws.
Mexico, like any sovereign nation, wants to account for everyone crossing into the country and it is being forced to address issues that accompany illegal immigration — not the least of which are issues that preclude the exploitation of the weakest or the often callous, even cruel indifference these travelers face landing in a new country.
The first decade of the 21st century saw a dramatic increase in illegal crossings into Mexico, primarily by impoverished Central Americans from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, undocumented border crossings nearly doubled between 2002 and 2005 to 240,000. It has stabilized in recent years but remains a serious issue. And, nearly all who were detained by Mexican authorities for immigration violations were also deported.
Those leaving their native countries and into Mexico are as dogged and determined as those illegally crossing borders in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. They, too, carelessly or naively challenge nature by traveling unchartered paths in extreme heat or by enduring torrential tropical monsoons. Or, elements notwithstanding, they take their chances with unscrupulous agents who prey on their desperation and hopelessness.
Many of these refugees also encounter rapists, robbers and, not infrequently, the corruption of authorities, Mexican police, soldiers or even civil servants, who see them as easy marks.
The reception illegal border crossers into Mexico encounter, which often teeters on depravity, has actually caused the country to reconsider and even rewrite some of its longstanding immigration laws.
“That is a very powerful argument,” the Mexican President told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in a 2010 interview. “And that is one of the reasons we are trying to change our policies.” In the interview, Mexican President Felipe Calderon candidly acknowledged these issues. He said Mexico’s nearly century-old immigration laws needed to be updated and modernized to become more humane in the treatment of immigrants.
The policies to which Calderon referred are contained in his country’s Constitution, adopted nearly a century ago. It addresses illegal immigration in Article 118. The provision calls for imprisonment of up to two years and a fine for illegal immigration. Those returning after they’ve been deported “can be punished with up to 10 years in prison.”
It was Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission that brought up the mistreatment of those illegally crossing its southern border by highlighting numerous and almost predictable issues of abuse and exploitation, including barbarous treatment in migrant detainment camps.
But the seemingly vigorous enforcement by Mexico of its immigration laws has been seized and labeled by conservative pundits and critics in the U.S. as pure hypocrisy. They say that Mexico is hyper-vigilant on its borders as it simultaneously calls for the U.S. to be lenient with illegal border crossers entering along the 1,912 mile American border.
That, says Denver immigration attorney Jessica Kunevicius, is not true. Of the Central American refugees passing through Mexico, very few are looking for sanctuary. “I think they’re probably looking to go a little farther north.” They’re aiming for the U.S. where unskilled labor is awarded with same-day hiring, especially in agriculture.
“Rather than pointing fingers at the Mexican government or accusing it of hypocrisy, the U.S. should collaborate on the common immigration problems and seek solutions along with Mexico’s government,” Kunevicius said. “Addressing the brutality of law enforcement should also form part of a humanitarian policy on the shared experiences of both countries.
Mexico is expected to deport thousands of Central Americans and others crossing its southern border this year. And though most have no plans to remain — the U.S. being their likely destination — the country’s National Human Rights Commission wants to end the practice of wanton mistreatment of refugees.
“Mexico has a deplorable record of human rights violations on its southern border,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College. In an interview with the San Bernadino Sun, he says those looking at Mexico’s immigration policies alongside America’s is an invalid comparison.
The issue of immigration into Mexico needs to be examined more thoughtfully, he says. When Mexico ratified its Constitution, it crafted its immigration policy in a way to keep foreigners from buying up huge swaths of land. And, it’s worked. Today, thousands of expatriate Americans, essentially long-term renters, call Mexico home. The nation has also been more than lenient in offering asylum to those facing persecution in their own countries.
But taken in totality, Mexico’s immigration challenges are dwarfed when compared to its northern neighbor. Only about one percent of the nation’s 106 million people are immigrants compared to 12 percent in America. As a result, it will try, as President Calderon has pledged, to carry out a kinder and more humane treatment of new arrivals well before it resorts to building a billion dollar border-long fence as the U.S. is attempting in an effort to shut down illegal crossings.