President Felipe Calderon hopes to accomplish the sweeping immigration reform Washington has failed to adopt — not just cracking down on the southern border but also creating a guest-worker program and improving conditions for illegal Central American migrants.
Proving that controlled, regulated migration is possible is the immediate political goal of Calderon, who is unveiling the ambitious reforms shortly before President Bush visits Mexico on March 13-14.
Calderon’s migration agency announced the first phase Tuesday, pledging improvements to 48 detention centers in response to criticism that illegal Central American migrants are denied the respect Mexico demands for its citizens in the U.S.
The Interior Department said it will soon reveal details of its Safe Southern Border Program to move against illegal crossers, violent gangs in the border zone and abuse of migrants by authorities throughout Mexico.
“We have a porous, southern border with little control of who comes in from Central America and other regions,” acknowledged Florencio Salazar, the department’s deputy secretary of migration affairs.
Calderon also will push Mexico’s Congress to make being undocumented a civil violation, rather than a crime, Salazar said. By contrast, Republicans in the U.S. Congress have sought to treat undocumented migrants as felons.
The president also has promised a more formal guest-worker program for Central Americans.
“Just as we demand respect for the human rights of our countrymen, we have the ethical and legal responsibility to respect the human rights and the dignity of those who come from Central and South America and who cross our southern border,” Calderon has said.
More seasonal farm workers expected
Details have not been released, but experts expect an expansion of Mexico’s seasonal farm worker program, which issues at least 40,000 temporary visas a year, mostly to Guatemalans. Most work in coffee plantations in southern Chiapas state, and many often face problems over pay, medical care and housing.
Migration experts say Calderon wants to stop those abuses while also allowing Central Americans to work in the construction and service industries in the south.
Bush supports Mexico’s call for a U.S. immigration accord allowing Mexicans to seek temporary U.S. work visas, but Congress has instead voted to harden the border and increase security.
Washington also has urged Mexico to do more to stop Central and South Americans who hop freight trains north and head for the United States. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the Bush administration has offered to advise Mexico on securing its southern border.
Mexico said it detained 182,705 illegal migrants last year; the United States caught more than a million people illegally crossing Mexico’s northern border.
Calderon sees it as a law-and-order problem: Central American gangs operate on both sides of Mexico’s border with Guatemala, robbing migrants and running drugs, and migrants also are mistreated by Mexican police and immigration officials.
Widespread problems with officials
Last year, 187 migration officials were disciplined, said Cecilia Romero, Mexico’s top immigration official. Her department’s plan aims “to entirely eliminate this terrible situation” by improving detainees’ access to lawyers and human rights defenders and prohibiting undocumented migrants from being held in common jails.
“It’s harder to go through Mexico than getting into the U.S.,” said Richard Garcia, a Honduran waiting for a northbound train in this industrial hub outside Mexico City. “At least in the U.S. they just pick you up and return you. Here you get robbed, beat up.”
Garcia, 31, said at least a dozen men from his Atlantic coast village of Triunfo de la Cruz have lost limbs riding trains across Mexico.
Riding with him this time was Dilcia Ortiz, a 27-year-old mother of four from Tela, Honduras who was trying to reach her husband in New York City. Eighteen days into the trip, she had paid a $45 bribe to Mexican immigration officials and watched a female traveler slice her foot in half trying to jump on a train.
“I cried so hard,” Ortiz said, recalling how the woman screamed in pain. “I thought of my husband when he did this trip, of all my people who have had to do this.”
Wairon Adalis, 18, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said his friend turned back after gang members robbed him and fired a bullet that skimmed his head. Adalis said nothing would stop him from meeting his family in Houston — even the chance to work legally in Mexico.
“If Mexico wants us to work here, then they have to pay in dollars,” he said.
Garcia said he would consider joining a Mexican guest-worker program, “but I still don’t understand why Mexico cares.”
“We’re passing through. We don’t affect anything. It’s obvious they’re just trying to please Washington,” he said. “They should let us through so we don’t have to die falling off a train. We’re all Latin Americans, so we should support each other in this.”