In the first two years of the Felipe Calderon administration, Mexico has become a focal point in the violation of the human rights of immigrants even as it criticizes the treatment of Mexican migrants in the United States. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Jorge Bustamante states the problem in no uncertain terms: "We are responsible for violations of the rights of Central Americans passing through Mexico, the same or worse as those of Mexicans in the United States."
The analogy between the treatment of Central Americans by the Mexican government and Mexicans by the U.S. government is particularly relevant. President Calderon came to office with two seemingly different challenges: to find a solution to U.S. treatment of Mexican migrants on the northern border, and to deal fairly and efficiently with a burgeoning flow of immigrants and trans-migrants crossing over his southern border.
Neither challenge has been met. The contrast between the mostly rhetorical defense of Mexican migrants and the violations of migrant rights here demonstrates not only hypocrisy, but more importantly, the absence of a coherent rights-based immigration policy that would apply the standards developed in UN declarations on migrant rights, and other conventions.
Participants in the World Social Forum on Migrations designated Mexico a "red flag" zone for the violation of migrants’ rights. The first reason is that it is one of the countries that produce the largest number of migrants. Migrant organizations in the United States accuse the Calderon government of a lack of results in defending their rights, and a lack of direct dialogue with the migrants. Calderon’s statements that migration is inevitable, they claim, show a fatalistic resignation to the lack of options at home.
The second reason is the treatment of Central Americans in Mexico. Chiapas alone receives some 45,000 agricultural migrant workers a year and 200,000 illegal entries. Bustamante reports that migrants are "tortured, robbed, and extorted" by criminal networks comprised of corrupt members of the armed forces, police, and government officials. The Salvadorean vice consul recently affirmed that 17% of Salvadoran migrants had been assaulted when entering Mexico. Press reports and testimonies reveal the terrible conditions of overcrowding in migratory stations, extortion by security forces, and routine violations of rights in raids and return programs. It’s not that the administration has entirely ignored the problem. Undocumented status was decriminalized. Discourse and training on human rights has increased within immigration agencies and services have been expanded. Special programs have been instituted to protect women and child migrants.
But even insiders admit these programs are at best Band-Aids on a hemorrhaging wound. The reason is the adoption of the security paradigm for migratory policy. Since the Vicente Fox administration, the U.S. government has pushed Mexico to control immigration over its southern border as part of stretching the U.S. security perimeter. Many of these commitments were hammered out in the context of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, or SPP, an agreement to extend NAFTA into regional security.
The Merida Initiative, developed in the SPP, will provide tens of millions of dollars to Mexico’s Migration Institute to institutionalize the security approach to immigration. Although heralded by Calderon as a joint initiative to fight organized crime, it is officially called a regional cooperation initiative on counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, and border security. It intensifies conflict and aggressions against migrants by attacking "the flow of illegal goods and persons," as if migrants were contraband or terrorists.
Placing immigration within a security paradigm is what led to the construction of the wall along the U.S. border and the 5,000 deaths to date of migrants forced to cross in the most dangerous parts of the border due to U.S. surveillance and enforcement. Ironically, the emphasis on border "control" in Mexico has fed organized crime and created booming underground businesses that prey on immigrants. The UN High Commission for Refugees has pointed out this relationship, saying, "All smugglers thrive on prohibition, so stronger borders and tightened visa restrictions have helped push more people—both refugees and economic migrants—into the arms of the smugglers."
In those arms, women are forced into prostitution, migrants are kidnapped for the resources they were able to scrape together for the trip, their families are extorted, and children are forced into slave labor. All these problems have grown over the past two years, as the Calderon administration tightened border controls in the South while turning a blind eye to corruption, and has taken a weak stance on repressive measures in the North.
Illegal immigration is not a problem that will go away as long as it’s considered a problem. The problem is not people looking for work—people will always look for a way to feed their families and cannot be deterred from that. It’s jobs. The Calderon and Bush governments are spending millions each year on security forces, monitoring, detention, and deportation of immigrants. Many keep coming back, not because they’re recidivist lawbreakers, but because they don’t have options in their home countries.
Unless Mexico, the United States, and Central American countries form an effective regional employment strategy that includes a review of trade polices that lead to displacement, the human rights crisis for immigrants will continue to go from bad to worse.