No-Visa Agreement Backfired on Mexico

Times Staff Writers

Mexico thought it was promoting tourism and business when it agreed five years ago to allow Brazilians into the country without visas. Instead, the move provoked a wave of illegal immigration into the United States by Brazilians who used Mexico as a springboard.

Now, Brazilians have become one of the largest and fastest-growing categories of illegal U.S. immigrants. They typically cross surreptitiously into the United States after easy, legal entry at Mexican airports.

The number of Brazilians detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 is more than three times higher than the total detained a year earlier. From virtually zero a decade ago, the number of undocumented Brazilian migrants held in the United States will exceed 30,000 this year. Brazil ranks behind only Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador as a source of undocumented migrants.

But the agreement that led to the Brazilian flood is about to end. Top officials in the two Latin American nations confirmed this week that Mexico had informed Brazil that it was suspending the no-visa policy for Brazilian tourists and businesspeople effective Oct. 26.


Also affected are Ecuador and South Africa, whose citizens also are allowed into Mexico without visas.

Brazilians need visas to legally enter the United States. U.S. immigration officials were concerned about Mexico’s no-visa policy because of its effect on the flow of illegal migrants and because of fears that it could provide an avenue for terrorists.

Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington, however, declined to comment Tuesday on Mexico’s policy change.

Brazil said the change was within Mexico’s rights as a sovereign nation.


In a statement, Mexican immigration officials said Brazilians accounted for nearly two-thirds of all foreigners denied entry to the country. In the first half of the year, 6,450 Brazilians were denied entry into Mexico.

“Thousands of Brazilians were arriving at the Mexico City airport with one-way air tickets, no hotel reservations or luggage. So they were not your typical tourists or businessmen,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Brazilians account for a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants detained in the U.S.-Mexico border area each year. More than 95% are Mexicans who are routinely deported immediately.

But Brazilians and other non-Mexican migrants have exploited a loophole in U.S. policy that enables them in many cases to avoid deportation even after being detained in the United States.


Undocumented foreigners from countries other than Mexico with no criminal records can gain release from custody by simply requesting a hearing, which many later skip.

That loophole has led to a proliferation of travel agencies offering packages to Mexican cities along the U.S. border. A popular Brazilian soap opera recently dealt with the perils and romance of the northward passage.

The Mexican official said the change on the visa requirement was made on Mexico’s initiative. He said he believed extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah had cells in southern Brazil, and his government was concerned that their members could try to enter Mexico. The nation had similar concerns about South Africa, the official said.

In addition, the cost of housing Brazilian detainees in Mexico has become increasingly onerous. The Mexican government maintains a detention camp for illegal migrants at an abandoned military base in Mexico City, and Mexico has had to shoulder the cost of sending many Brazilians home.


But some Brazilians suspected U.S. pressure was at work. Williams Goncalves, an international relations professor in Rio de Janeiro state, was quoted in O Globo newspaper criticizing Mexico’s policy change as an “extension of U.S. interests.”

“If there is any failure on Brazil’s part, it’s our inability to keep Brazilians here. It’s a sad spectacle to see Brazilians trying desperately to enter the U.S.,” he said.

Times staff writer Henry Chu in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.