One of the most frequent arguments of supporters of Arizona's anti-immigration law is that it doesn't do anything different than what Mexico does with undocumented Central American migrants, or what most Latin American countries do with their own illegal immigrants. It's a powerful argument, and partially true.
Legally, it's a deceiving contention, because Arizona's law is much more likely to lead to racial discrimination than Mexico's. In real life, however, Mexico tolerates abuses against undocumented migrants from Central and South America that are just as bad, if not worse.
Let's start with the laws. A recent Washington Times story claimed that "under the Mexican law, illegal immigration is a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison. Immigrants who are deported and attempt to re-enter can be imprisoned for 10 years."
The May 3 article quoted Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, as calling Mexico's official criticism of the Arizona law "hypocritical," because Mexico's immigration laws are "even tougher than those in the United States."
Asked about these punishments during his visit to Washington last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told CNN, "That used to be true, but it's not true anymore." Calderon pointed out that Mexico's immigration law was changed in 2008, and that all the harsh punishments against undocumented migrants have been removed.
Judging from what senior Mexican officials told me, there are two key differences between Mexico's current law and Arizona's:
First, in Mexico, being an undocumented immigrant is not a crime, nor a misdemeanor, but an administrative transgression. This means that in Mexico, unlike in Arizona, nobody can be sent to jail for breaking immigration rules. Those who violate immigration rules have to pay a fine, and can only be deported if they are caught by immigration authorities.
Second, in Mexico, police can't ask about the migration status of a person, even if that person has been stopped for lawful reasons. Mexico's police can only notify immigration authorities when immigrants volunteer, for instance, that they are illegally in the country on their way to the United States.
By comparison, the Arizona law requires that the police request immigration papers from people it stops for whatever other lawful reason.
Supporters of the Arizona law also say that the state is much more generous toward undocumented immigrants than Mexico.
"In Mexico, you could not be able to get food stamps, education services or show up at an emergency room if you don't have immigration papers," says George W. Grayson, a professor at College of William and Mary. "The situation in Mexico is much harsher for Central Americans than what illegal Mexicans suffer in Arizona."
Mexican officials and many human rights activists dispute that, but accept that undocumented immigrants in Mexico are routinely extorted by local police agents and human traffickers.
An April 28 report by Amnesty International says that the abuse of migrants in Mexico has become "a human rights crisis."
According to the report, kidnappings of migrants for ransom reached a record high last year, with nearly 10,000 migrants being abducted for more than six months. Almost half of the victims who were interviewed said public officials were involved in their kidnappings.
In addition, about 60 percent of migrant women and girls experience sexual violence, it reads.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, says that while Arizona has passed a law that "promotes racism," in Mexico "you don't have that kind of legislation, but you have a de facto situation, in which Central American migrants are victims of all kinds of abuses by police officers tied to local mafias that operate with total impunity."
My opinion: I agree. Arizona has just passed a bad law that opens the doors to racial discrimination, whereas Mexico has passed a good law that fights racial discrimination, but the country doesn't do much to stop police abuses against undocumented immigrants.
Mexico's mistreatment of Central American migrants should be no excuse for laws like Arizona's. And the Arizona law's abuses should be no excuse for Mexico's failure to crack down on its police forces for human rights abuses against undocumented immigrants. Both are wrong, and both should be denounced.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer @ herald.com Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.