Mexican Immigration Policy Lowers the Cost of Central American Migration to the US

One persistent American complaint about the Mexican government’s opposition to immigration laws like Arizona’s SB-1070 is that Mexico’s immigration policy is far more restrictive than that of the United States or anything proposed in Arizona. In 2010, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) articulately pointed out the Mexican government’s blatant hypocrisy. Brutal Mexican immigration laws were not only bad policy for Mexico but exposed an absurd level of hypocrisy.

After Representative Poe’s comments, the Mexican government passed a Migratory Act in 2011 that went into effect on November 1, 2012. This law replaced the General Law of Population that created the oppressive Mexican immigration laws Rep. Poe and others rightly critiqued. The Migratory Act made a number of significant changes:

  • Guarantees the equal treatment of migrants and Mexican nationals under Mexican law, entitling them to due process, 
  • Establishes “family unity and the best interests of children and adolescents as the principal criteria for the admission and stay of foreigners for temporary or permanent Mexican residency, alongside labor and humanitarian causes,” 
  • Establishes offices for protection of migrants’ human rights and the investigation of crimes purportedly committed against migrants, including those committed by immigration officials,
  • Simplifies entrance and residence requirements,
  • Establishes a point system for those who apply for residence,
  • Creates a 3 day regional visitors visa for people from neighboring countries, 
  • Streamlines the visa application process.

Other legal changes to Mexican laws in 2008 reduced the punishment for illegal entry from up to ten years in prison to a maximum fine of 5000 pesos. The Mexican government also introduced temporary visas, valid for up to a year, for agricultural laborers from Guatemala and Belize working in Mexico’s southern states. In 2010, undocumented migrants were guaranteed the right to report human rights violations and receive medical treatment without prosecution.

Mexican Immigration Laws, Central American Free-Movement Zones, and the Increase in Central American Immigration

One unintended consequence of Mexico’s more liberalized immigration laws, partly in response to legitimate American criticism, is that now the migration of people from Central America to the United States through Mexico is much cheaper than it used to be. The biggest hurdle for Central American migrants used to be the militarized Southern Mexican border and the abuse by corrupt police, which the Migratory Act of 2011 mitigates.

Mexico isn’t the only country that changed its immigration and border control policies in recent years. In June 2006, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua signed the Central America-4 (CA-4) Border Control Agreement that created a common passport and obliterated border controls and movement restrictions between those four nations. The removal of political barriers to movement has decreased the costs of migrating northward toward the United States.

Liberalized Mexican and Central American immigration laws and border controls likely play a role in lowering the cost of migrating to the United States. Ironically, American complaints that partly spurred Mexican immigration policy changes are likely a contributing factor of the recent increase in Central American migration.