"It's a little like the problem in the U.S.," said Manuel Lomeli, spokesman for the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, the government refugee agency. "Some enter legally and some not. You have to distinguish between refugees and aliens of the economic sort."
In this, the government is opposed by activist Roman Catholic priests who insist that Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants are coming to Mexico essentially to flee violence at home.
"It has become a political problem: To accept them as refugees would mean condemning the human rights situation in neighboring countries," said Father Javier Ruiz Velasco, a parish priest in San Cristobal de las Casas.
Blamed for Crime Wave
In six years, the influx of Guatemalans and Salvadorans has swelled the population in and around Tapachula to an estimated 250,000 from 100,000, town officials say. It is a population boom they seem unhappy with. The entire population of Chiapas is officially listed as 500,000.
"The immigrants are causing a crime wave," Cruz, the Tapachula city hall spokesman, said. "They are not like the old-time immigrants that came to work and then went back home. These come to rob and stay."
Didier Cruz, who is the mayor's son, his namesake and sometime assistant, said that prostitution is booming because it provides steady work.
"On the city streets!" he exclaimed. "They are everywhere. Right outside city hall. A few years ago we dismantled the red-light district here, but now we will have to reinstall it in order to maintain some control."
Economics is the basis for much of the complaining.
"Not only do they take jobs from our own citizens, but they start businesses with smuggled goods, and our merchants can't keep up," said Augusto Villareal, editor of Diario del Sur.
Some Mexicans see signs that a foreign culture is taking root.
"Everyone is listening to Guatemalan music, news, speaking like Guatemalans," complained Roberto de los Santos, head of a government-affiliated labor union.
Immigration officials recently visited Tapachula to try to calm the growing public storm over immigration. At an open meeting, complaints from residents about the immigrants brought retorts not only from the Mexican officials but from the Guatemalan consul here as well.
Can't Stem the Flow
Cesar Alfonso Samayoa, the consul, said, "I assure you that the great majority of Guatemalans who come here are honest and only want to work."
Roberto Guerson, president of the local bar association, said: 'We can't go on a witch hunt to stop foreigners from coming. There are too many, and we have too long a border."
Like their U.S. counterparts, Mexican officials are ill-equipped to stem the flow of immigrants. Government action is centered on stepped-up border patrols. For every foreigner caught crossing illegally, four evade capture, the national immigration office reported recently.
This poor performance is blamed on the length of the border and the willingness of some immigration officers to accept bribes.
U.N. Refugee Camps
"We know there is corruption, but we are working on it," Roque, the immigration official, said.
While the issue is boiling, an earlier controversy over refugees has cooled somewhat. About 40,000 refugees from Guatemala are living in U.N.-sponsored refugee camps in Chiapas and in the neighboring states of Campeche and Quintana Roo.
Two years ago, a problem developed when the Mexican government tried to persuade--some say force--the refugees to move to camps in adjoining states, far from the border. Officially, the move was prompted by attacks on refugees near the border by the Guatemalan army, but some observers felt it was designed to better control refugees who might create political problems for Mexico.
A 1984 report from Americas Watch, a New York-based human rights organization, said, "It is feared that some refugees may be sympathetic to the Guatemalan guerrilla movement and that this kind of left political ideology may find fertile ground."
The relocation program proved to be only partially successful. Of about 46,000 Guatemalans recognized as refugees by the government, about 18,500 moved to four new camps in Campeche and Quintana Roo. Another 20,500 preferred to stay on in 77 dispersed settlements in Chiapas near the border.
About 5,500 of the refugees disappeared. The government says they went back to Guatemala. The church says they scattered into Mexico.
Only 1,500 refugees have voluntarily gone home, at the invitation of the year-old elected Guatemalan government.
Nonetheless, the Mexican government intends to persevere in its effort to persuade the refugees to relocate.
Influx Began in 1981
"The decision to move the refugees is still in force," said Oscar Gonzalez, head of the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid, overseer of the refugee camps. "It is merely on hold for the moment. We are trying to convince the refugees."