Felipe Calderón criticized Arizona's immigration law for being discriminatory. How tough are Mexican immigration laws?

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April 29 2010 7:18 PM

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Mexico's president criticized the new Arizona immigration law for being discriminatory. How tough are Mexican immigration laws?

Rally against the new Arizona immigration law. Click image to expand.
Rally against the new Arizona immigration law

Mexican President Felipe Calderón criticized the new Arizona immigration law on Monday, saying that it "opens the door to intolerance, hate, and discrimination."* So how tough are Mexican immigration laws?

They're pretty strict, but not often enforced. Until recently, entering Mexico without proper documentation was a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, as codified in the country's General Law of Population. (Undocumented immigrants in the United States are held in detention centers until they're deported. They don't get a jail sentence unless they've committed other crimes.) In 2008, that penalty was reduced to a fine of up to 5,000 pesos, or about $400. If you're caught with fake documents, the Ministry of the Interior can fine you twice that. In most cases, undocumented immigrants are "voluntarily repatriated," or asked to leave the country. If they're caught again, they're fined again and frequently deported. In practice, though, high levels of corruption mean that police will often take bribes from undocumented immigrants—and sometimes even rob them—instead of sending them home. (The punishments were reduced in 2008 partly because police were using the heavy penalty as leverage for extortion.)

Mexican law determines who's allowed to immigrate "according to their possibilities of contributing to national progress." That means scientists, athletes, artists, and other people with special abilities are given preference. So are investors who want to start a business in Mexico. The country makes it easy for Americans to retire there by waiving tariffs when they move their belongings. (The United States sends more immigrants to Mexico than any other country does.) It also incentivizes immigration from other Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America and Europe by making those foreigners eligible for citizenship after three years instead of the usual five. *

There are other big differences between the immigration laws in Mexico and the United States.   For example, naturalized Mexicans—those who gain citizenship some way other than by birth—don't have as many rights as people who are naturalized in the United States. * In the United States, naturalized Americans can't run for president; in Mexico, they're also barred from many other high-level government posts. Nor can naturalized Mexicans hold dual citizenship. In general, though, Mexican laws against immigration aren't as strictly enforced as they are in the United States because fewer people are trying to go there.

Got a question about today's news?  Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David FitzGerald of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, George Grayson of the College of William and Mary, Kevin Johnson of the University of California–Davis, and Michael Olivas of the University of Houston.

Become a fan of Slate and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Correction, April 30, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of President Felipe Calderón. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) It also incorrectly stated that Portugal is a Spanish-speaking country. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) It also incorrectly stated that being born in Mexico doesn't automatically make you a citizen. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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