Stepping Over the Line

Ever since he crossed into Mexico, José Moisés has had nothing but trouble. Now the 30-year-old Honduran mechanic is hunkered down with other young illegal migrants in a rail yard just north of Mexico City, waiting for nightfall to hop a northbound freight. He displays a pale line encircling his finger. He used to have a ring there, he says--until Mexican cops slammed him against a squad car in the southern border state of Chiapas and grabbed it. "They took everything," says Moisés. "Here the Central American has no value."

As tough as the United States can be for workers who slip in from south of the border, Mexico is in a poor position to criticize. The problem goes far beyond the predatory gantlet of thugs and crooked cops facing defenseless transients like Moisés. There's ample precedent in Mexico for just about everything the United States is--or isn't--doing. Calling out the military? Mexicans may hate the new U.S. plan to deploy 6,000 National Guard troops on the border, but five years ago they cheered President Vicente Fox for sending thousands of Mexican soldiers to crack down on their southern frontier. Tougher laws? Hispanic-rights groups are enraged over U.S. efforts to criminalize undocumented aliens--yet since 1974, sneaking into Mexico has been punishable by up to two years in prison. Foot-dragging on amnesty? Fox has spent the past five years urging the United States to upgrade the status of millions of illegals from Mexico. Meanwhile, his own government has given legal status to only 15,000 foreigners without papers.

Some of the worst abuses take place on the coffee plantations of Chiapas state, where some 40,000 Guatemalan field hands endure backbreaking jobs and squalid living conditions to earn roughly $3.50 a day. Some growers even deduct the cost of room and board from that amount. "If you ask them, 'Why are you bringing in Guatemalans to work?' they say, 'You can't depend on Mexicans. They don't work hard; they're irresponsible'," says George Grayson, a political scientist specializing in Mexico at the College of William & Mary. "The truth is, you can pay [the guest workers] a pittance. And if they cause the slightest disturbance, you can send them back to Guatemala."

At least a few Mexicans are balking at the hypocrisy. Late last year their National Human Rights Commission issued a report criticizing Mexico's widespread mistreatment of aliens; the report described sub- human facilities where captured illegals are kept until they can be deported. Several international news agencies ran stories on the publication. But most of Mexico's leading papers ignored it.

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