MEXICO CITY – Though the Mexican government has blasted Arizona’s new employer-sanctions law in the past week, Mexico, too, has federal rules specifically barring companies from hiring illegal immigrants.
But Mexico’s law is rarely enforced, partly because Mexico’s tax-evasion problem makes illegal workers harder to detect and partly because illegal immigration is seen as less of a problem as in the United States, experts say. In fact, Mexico has legalized hundreds of undocumented migrants from Central America under an amnesty program launched in December 2006. And although state and local governments in the United States have begun passing laws regarding migrants, Mexican states have mostly left such rulemaking to the federal government.
Arizona’s sanctions law went into effect on Jan. 1, requiring employers to run new hires’ identification documents through a federal database called E-Verify. Companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrations could lose their business licenses.
Mexico has condemned the measure and pledged to defend the rights of migrants affected by it.
“Measures like the one passed in Arizona do not contribute to resolving the labor-migration issue between both countries and ignore the contributions of migrants to the society and economy of the USA,” Mexico’s Foreign Ministry said in a written statement this month.
But Mexico’s General Population Law also targets employers who hire illegal immigrants. Under Articles 74 and 140 of that law, anyone who hires an undocumented worker can be fined $4,434 or imprisoned for 36 hours.
However, catching violators is difficult, experts say. Tax evasion is rampant in Mexico, with about 27 percent of people working off the books in what is called the “informal sector,” according to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information Processing. Some studies put the percentage much higher.
With so many taco vendors, shoe sellers, plumbers and farmworkers going untracked by the Mexican government, it’s easy for illegal migrants to go undetected, said Antonio Maldonado, an immigration lawyer in Tijuana.
“It’s very rare that you can prove that employers have hired employees illegally in Mexico,” Maldonado said. “Normally, it’s done off the books, completely informally.”
Mexico’s National Migration Institute, the agency that enforces immigration rules, did not respond to an interview request and would not release figures on employer sanctions. But a review of actions announced by the agency in recent years shows that workplace raids are rare.
In November 2005, immigration agents detained 24 Asians working illegally in shops in central Mexico City, where many pirated goods are sold. In January 2007, they raided a strip club in Cancun looking for foreign dancers but found none.
In October, agents visited 25 Chinese restaurants in the city of Tampico after noting a surge in Chinese requesting work visas there. All the Chinese workers had valid visas, the migration agency said.
“As far as I know, I’ve never heard of an employer being punished for hiring someone without the right documents,” said Elain Levine, a migration expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
That’s partly because illegal immigration is not the burning issue that it is in the United States, experts say.
“The main objective of many of these Central American migrants is to get to the United States,” said Francisco Alba, a migration researcher at the College of Mexico. As a result, they are seen as less of a threat to Mexicans, he said.
Most detentions by the National Migration Institute are Central American travelers who are caught trying to travel northward to the United States, the agency’s statistics show.
Mexican agents detained and repatriated 109,909 migrants from January to October, two-thirds of them at highway checkpoints, rail yards and river crossings in the southern border states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
In August, the National Migration Institute detained 900 Central American migrants stranded in Tabasco after a railroad stopped operating the freight trains migrants use to ride northward.
Under Mexican law, illegal immigrants can be jailed for two years and fined $460. But most are simply deported.
Unlike Arizona and other U.S. states, no Mexican state has passed laws aimed at illegal immigrants, said Enrique Tamayo, a lawyer with the Federal Institute of Public Defenders.
“Whenever there are migrants who are detained, they’re turned over to the (federal authorities),” said Oralia Zamora, a spokeswoman for the Tabasco Justice Department. “We’ve never handled a case against a company that hired undocumented workers.”
As the debate over illegal immigration continues to heat up in the U.S., Mexico has been relaxing its own immigration rules.
In August it announced a new border workers visa for Guatemalans. It also expanded its local visitors visa, allowing Guatemalans to visit 76 towns in southern Mexico.
Other recent changes have allowed Mexican-Americans to regain their Mexican citizenship and made it easier for other foreigners to become naturalized Mexicans.
As of June, about 1,518 undocumented migrants had applied for amnesty under a Migration Regularization Program launched in December 2006. Half had been processed and issued FM-3 residency visas, the Migration Institute said.