Mexico Rages Over U.S. Law on Immigration


In a contentious session of Mexican lawmakers Friday, Foreign Secretary Jose Angel Gurria Trevino called the United States’ tough new immigration law the latest in a series of “physical and legal barriers” that will make it harder for all Mexicans to assimilate in the U.S.

At a time when U.S. statistics confirm that illegal Mexican migrants are being expelled from the United States at a near-record rate, lawmakers here were even more emphatic than Gurria, blasting the law as part of an isolationist trend in the United States that includes a massive crackdown on the border.

As the debate raged over the potential impact of a law designed to make it easier for the United States to expel illegal migrants, statistics from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service document more than 1.6 million expulsions during fiscal year 1996, compared with 1.3 million in 1995.


Of those, an estimated 97% were Mexicans, an INS spokesman said, adding that the only year when U.S. authorities expelled more undocumented immigrants was in 1986--the year another tough U.S. immigration law took effect.

Behind much of the criticism vented during Friday’s debate here are fears that this year’s law will drive the number of expulsions even higher in the years ahead.

For Mexico, much more is at stake than the rights, dignity and

safety of the Mexican migrant community in the United States, much of it in Southern California.

Each year, Mexicans living in the United States send home more than $4 billion, representing the country’s third-largest source of foreign income behind oil exports and tourism.

If the new law significantly cuts into the number of migrants who reach the United States, it will directly affect Mexico’s economy.

But the official INS statistics, combined with recent independent studies, suggest that the new law is not likely to have a dramatic impact on the number of Mexicans crossing the border.


In the more than 1.6 million apprehensions of migrants illegally entering the United States in 1996, for example, all but about 72,000 voluntarily turned around and went home.


Only that small minority chose to fight their expulsion in U.S. courts--an option for a judicial review that the new law eliminates. It is the removal of that option that the Mexican government and other critics here cite in predicting that the new act will rob migrants of due process and drive up the number of Mexican expulsions as those turned away repeat their entry attempts again and again.

But at least one expert in Mexico disagreed with the critics. “There is . . . not going to be a crisis in immigration because of this law,” said Jorge Bustamante, director of Tijuana’s Research Institute of the Northern Border, which has studied illegal immigration for decades. “The fact of the matter is almost no one uses the judicial process. Most just turn around and go home.”

Bustamante added that sharp increases in expulsions are related less to legislation than to increases in the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents, the relative states of the Mexican and U.S. economies and the cost of illegal transportation across the border. All of those factors have combined to make the illegal journey far more difficult during the past two years, he said, and yet there has been no apparent decrease in the number of migrants who attempt it.

In assessing the INS statistics, Bustamante stressed that the increasing number of expulsions does not imply an increase in the number of illegal migrants. Expulsions record the number of events--not individuals--he said, adding that his institute’s recent studies show that the overwhelming majority of illegal migrants are caught multiple times.

In 1994, before the combined impact of Mexico’s deep recession and the U.S. border crackdown, Bustamante said, studies showed that a Mexican migrant was caught trying to cross the U.S. border an average of 2.7 times before making it through. At the end of 1995, the number of unsuccessful attempts rose to five. In the past year, as the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents has nearly doubled, Bustamante estimated, it may have reached as high as seven.


Bustamante said the overwhelming majority of illegal migrants interviewed by his researchers have also reported what the INS statistics confirm: that most prefer to simply turn around when caught and cross back into Mexico. They avoid lengthy hearings and detention cells and can make another attempt as soon as the following day.

But the concerns that filled the debate at Friday’s congressional hearings clearly go beyond the impact the new law will have on the nation’s economy.

Most here criticize the law as part of an anti-immigrant climate throughout the U.S.

“For the U.S. Congress, the problem of Mexican immigrants has become a crusade of a racist order to dismantle the scant rights [immigrants] had, to divide the Mexican communities and to promote xenophobic hunts in American society,” Sen. Hector Sanchez Lopez of the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party declared during Friday’s session.

Labeling it “the most radical anti-immigration policy in U.S. history,” Sanchez and other lawmakers criticized several provisions of the new law, which permits wiretapping and additional secret surveillance of immigrant communities. Those and other measures that permit immigration officials to use confidential informants, they asserted, will encourage migrants to turn on each other and destabilize the Mexican community in the United States.

Gurria focused on the antiimmigration climate in his harshest criticism yet of the recent U.S. moves.

“The objective vision of the migratory phenomenon in some sectors of the United States has taken on frequent distortions, noxious stereotypes, xenophobic attitudes, racism, violence and a growing inclination to use electoral means to achieve those ends,” he said.


If the law is applied “without discretion,” he added, it could further damage the already strained relations between Mexico and the United States.

Gurria indicated that there is little his government can do beyond official protests and bilateral meetings to soften the law’s effect. But his strong rhetoric reflected growing popular resentment of the United States here--not only in official circles but among many other Mexicans. That anger is likely to greet INS Commissioner Doris Meissner during a scheduled Mexico City visit next week.

A sampling of public sentiment came during a march of tens of thousands through the capital Thursday that was organized partly to protest the U.S. law; one group burned an American flag outside the U.S. Embassy.

“Mexicans like to work. And without Mexican labor, I think the United States would go under,” said Maria Natividad Alejo, 70, who was among the protesters. “But Mexicans are always being attacked there now. All we want is that they treat us well.”

“We are also demonstrating today to make our government give us land and work,” added construction worker Victor de los Santos Cruz, 57. “It’s because we have neither land nor work here that we go to the United States in the first place.”


Turned Back at the Border

Apprehensions and expulsions of illegal immigrants from the United States are on the rise. “Expulsions” include those turned back at the border and all other measures for returning illegal immigrants except those decided in court


The top 10 sectors for Border Patrol apprehensions:


1994 1995 1996 San Diego 450,152 524,231 483,815 Tucson 139,473 227,529 305,348 McAllen, Texas 124,251 169,101 210,553 El Paso 79,688 110,971 145,929 Laredo, Texas 73,142 93,305 131,841 Del Rio, Texas 50,036 76,490 121,137 El Centro, Calif. 27,654 37,317 66,873 Yuma, Ariz. 21,211 20,894 28,310 Livermore, Calif. 23,282 17,956 12,756 Miami 7,865 11,981 8,258


Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service