Mexican Senate passes progressive immigration law

On Feb. 24, the Mexican Senate by a vote of 86 to 0 passed a new comprehensive immigration law decriminalizing the presence of undocumented migrants in Mexico. Language in the bill states: “Nobody shall be declared illegal because of his/her condition as an immigrant, and adequate guarantees have to exist so that citizens of other countries can pass through Mexico.”

Mexico has been under pressure from the United States to halt the movement of hundreds of thousands of Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and others who pass through its territory without documents each year on their way to the United States.

Although the Mexican government, as well as opposition parties and civil society organizations, have been critical of mistreatment of Mexican immigrants in the United States, human rights organizations in Mexico have pointed out that mistreatment of undocumented migrants by Mexican police has been a growing problem.

Now drug cartels have gotten into the game, kidnapping an estimated 11,000 mostly Central American migrants in Mexico in 2010 alone, either to extort money from their families or to force them to work for the cartels. In August 2010, in the Northern state of Tamaulipas, 72 Central and South American migrants were massacred when they resisted pressure to work for the cartel.  This has led to heightened consciousness of the problem by the Mexican people, as well as diplomatic pressure on the government of President Felipe Calderon from Central American states.

So when the Migration Law was presented originally in the Mexican Senate, some deputies of the ruling right wing National Action Party (PAN) as well as the formerly ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) added to it a number of anti-immigrant clauses, including ones seen by commentators in the Mexican press as similar to anti-immigrant legislation in the United States like Arizona’s SB 1070. However, due to a push from human rights organizations and the action of the parliamentary left block, including the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) and Labor Party (PT) two of these amendments were stripped from the bill before passage, and others were modified to remove immigrant unfriendly language.

Amendments stripped from the bill before its passage include ones which have:

    * Allowed the feared Federal Judicial Police to ask people for immigration documents; in the final Senate version, only the immigration authorities can do this.
    * Fined employers of undocumented immigrants for an amount between 500 times and 1,500 times the minimum wage. This was eliminated completely.

Other amendments that were modified included one that would have allowed the immigration authorities to act on the basis of anonymous tips. 

The aim of the law appears to be to decriminalize undocumented immigrants and guarantee their security in their passage through Mexico. They will be allowed to travel by ordinary means of transportation.

This measure undercuts the business of criminal gangs involved in human smuggling, i.e. providing transportation of immigrants through Mexican territory and getting them past government checkpoints. Besides the high fees imposed on immigrants, this situation makes it possible for criminals to kidnap so many immigrants headed for the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexican immigration authorities would still have power to stop people at the border, but once migrants entered the country, they would not need to fear every policeman on the block or seek roundabout ways of traveling. Foreigners traveling through Mexico will be able to get special 180 day visas. Further, even if undocumented, migrants will have access to emergency health care, to civil registry marriages, the right to a day in court, and other important things. Due process rights of immigrants and refugees will be strengthened. Children born in Mexico to undocumented parents will be guaranteed Mexican citizenship.

The legislation still has to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Mexican Congress. It seems likely that it will pass there, given the unanimous vote in the Senate. Enforcement will be, of course, another matter.

The contrast with what is going on in the United States could not be greater. Here, in state after state, laws are being proposed that would question the citizenship of the children of undocumented immigrants and would criminalize the presence of the undocumented, in some cases even requiring hospital emergency room staff to look into the immigration status of patients.

At the federal level, the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs give authority to local police to enforce immigration law, leading to racial profiling abuses. And the expanded use of the electronic e-verify system to crack down on employers of undocumented immigrants is leading to mass firings, most lately of several hundred people working for the Chipotle restaurant chain. Mexico’s approach is, in contrast, to recognize the inevitability of labor migration, and the humanity of the migrants.

Photo by ProgressOhio/cc by 2.0/Flickr


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.