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Mexico's own migra

If you think the U.S. is rough on illegal immigrants, look at how Mexico treats the undocumented.

March 06, 2007

WHEN HOUSE Republicans last year sought to make the mere presence of illegal immigrants in the United States a felony punishable by one year in prison, the odious legislation sparked international condemnation. No country was more loudly indignant than Mexico. Then-President Vicente Fox called the legislation "shameful" and its targets "heroes" who make a crucial contribution to the U.S. economy.

Yet Mexico is hardly in a position to criticize. Since 1974, foreign immigrants in Mexico illegally have been subject to prison sentences of two years, plus a fine. Immigrants who are caught reentering Mexico after deportation face 10-year prison sentences, compared to two years here.

That is, until now. Mexican President Felipe Calderon has decided to tackle immigration reform of his own, and he is seeking the repeal of Article 123 of the General Population Law, which makes illegal immigrants the Mexican equivalent of felons.

The vast majority of the 185,000 illegal immigrants caught, detained and deported by Mexican officials each year come from Guatemala and Honduras, and many of them are in transit toward the Rio Grande. Human rights advocates have documented a lengthy list of abuses faced by these migrants -- threats, extortion and even violence -- stemming in part from their status as felons. In addition to amending Mexico's draconian and hypocritical law, Calderon's government is vowing to improve living conditions and medical services at the 48 detention centers where illegal immigrants are held pending deportation. Proposed upgrades include the addition of hot water and telephone service.

In a recent report, Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights accused immigration agents of numerous violations, citing one instance in which 78 migrants were crammed into four cells, each designed to hold only five people, and denied food and water for more than 24 hours.

These reforms would certainly improve the plight of detained migrants and also Mexico's relationship with its southern neighbors, as well as giving Mexico more moral standing to agitate against laws affecting its citizens in the United States. Those in this country who oppose guest-worker programs and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants often cite Mexico's own harsher policies as the ones we should adopt, or at least complain about first.

Mexico can declaw that argument by closing the gap between its advocacy for Mexican nationals in the United States and how it treats illegal immigrants within its borders. Mexico is under pressure from the U.S. to block the flow of migrants heading north, and recent crackdowns, in part, have been to that end. Ensuring the human rights of its migrant population, however, is not only the right thing to do, it's good politics.

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