Mexican Lawmakers: Illegal Migrants Should Not Be Treated as Criminals

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Federal legislators from Mexico's ruling party have introduced a bill to eliminate jail terms for illegal migration into Mexico, saying they want to send a message that migrants should not be treated like criminals.

The bill says illegal migrants should be fined instead of jailed. Under Mexico's current law, enacted in 1974, illegal migrants can face two to five years in prison, although authorities rarely impose such penalties.

The bill also would reduce fines for migrants and the maximum amount of time they can be detained by immigration authorities from three days to 36 hours.

National Action Party legislators Jose Antonio de la Vega, Pablo Alejo Lopez and Sergio Penagos say jail terms would remain for those who pose a threat to national security and for any who commit a crime.

"This is in response to the new reality" of migration, said Arturo Magana, spokesman for the Mexican Congress. "We cannot be demanding that the U.S. not criminalize migration and have this law here."

Magana said there is support for the bill across party lines in the Mexican Congress, whose session ends Sept. 1. Legislators also are discussing doubling jail time for people smugglers, who now face up to 12 years in prison.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in December that would treat illegal migrants in the U.S. as felons and increase penalties for first-time illegal entry to the country. The Senate passed a measure in May, backed by President Bush, that would increase border security and extend border fences, while also establishing a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. The two bills have yet to be reconciled and in the meantime, Bush sent National Guard troops to the border.

In a news release, the legislators said the bill should be accompanied by Mexican government promises to treat illegal migrants — the majority of whom are Central American — with respect.

Though Mexico demands humane treatment for its citizens who migrate to the U.S., regardless of their legal status, Mexico so far has provided few protections for migrants on its own soil, and human rights activists say abuses against them are rampant.

The Mexican government acknowledges that many federal, state and local officials are bribed by people-smugglers and that migrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse by corrupt police.

The government-funded National Human Rights Commission documented the abuses south of the U.S. border in a December report.

"One of the saddest national failings on immigration issues is the contradiction in demanding that the North respect migrants' rights, which we are not capable of guaranteeing in the South," commission president Jose Luis Soberanes said.

The number of undocumented migrants detained in Mexico rose from 138,061 in 2002 to 240,269 last year. Forty-two percent were Guatemalan, 33 percent Honduran and most of the rest Salvadoran.