"If you're from Guatemala and you are found illegally in Mexico, you are automatically jailed."

Sam Olens on Tuesday, June 28th, 2011 in a radio news story

Olens accuses Mexico of having harsher immigration laws than Georgia

After the Mexican government spoke out against Georgia’s tough new immigration law, state Attorney General Sam Olens accused it of hypocrisy.

Mexico joined with Guatemala and other Latin American countries to argue in federal court that Georgia’s law interferes with international relations. What’s worse, they said, it puts their citizens at risk of harassment by U.S. law enforcement.

Not so fast, Olens said in a radio story aired June 28.  Mexico has little right to complain in light of its own immigration laws.

"If you're from Guatemala and you are found illegally in Mexico, you are automatically jailed," Olens told AM 750 and 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB. "But here we have both Guatemala and Mexico complaining that we have laws to discourage illegal immigrants in our country."

Illegal Guatemalans are "automatically jailed" if they’re discovered in Mexico? Sounds harsh for a nation that’s complaining about Georgia’s law. We decided to check this out.

Georgia’s House Bill 87 aims to crack down on illegal immigration in this state.

One of its more controversial provisions would give police the authority to investigate the immigration status of people who they believe have committed crimes and who cannot produce identification. Another would punish people who, while committing another offense, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come here.

Last month, a U.S. district judge temporarily stopped these provisions from going into effect.

We contacted Olens spokeswoman Lauren Kane, who said that Olens’ claim was incorrect and he will not repeat it in the future. She said in an email that he was unaware Mexico had changed its immigration law a few years ago.

Then, violating Mexico immigration law was a criminal offense. Now it isn’t.  

Mexico has tried to improve conditions for migrants, although human rights advocates say these efforts aren’t enough. In 2008, reforms decriminalized immigration violations, said Andrew Selee, who directs the Mexico Institute, a research and policy center at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Merely being present in Mexico without papers is a civil violation, not a criminal one, experts told us.

Violators are not arrested or put in jail, which is designated for criminals or those suspected of crimes. They are sent to detention facilities and undergo a separate administrative process.

Illegal migrants may, if they choose, be deported within 48 hours and avoid a criminal record. If they contest their deportation, their stay in detention is much longer.

Legislation signed in May by Mexican President Felipe Calderon aims to improve conditions further, said Amnesty International researcher Rupert Knox, who is an expert on Mexico.  

The new legislation reaffirms that people who cross the border into Mexico without papers are guilty of a civil offense, not a criminal one, according to Knox and news reports. It emphasizes they have a right to health care and education.

It also draws tighter restrictions on who can detain illegal migrants. Before the May legislation, Mexican police could detain an illegal migrant and hand him over to national immigration authorities for deportation. Now, only those detected by national immigration authorities can be sent for deportation.

Mexican police are not allowed to stop people on the suspicion that they are in the country illegally, Knox said.

In sum, Guatemalans found illegally in Mexico are not "automatically jailed," as Olens said.

Since immigration violations are not criminal offenses, irregular migrants who are discovered are sent to a noncriminal detention facility, not jail. Their cases are not handled by the criminal courts, but by a separate administrative system.

Also, if a Mexican police officer detects an illegal migrant, he cannot detain him for deportation. Only immigration authorities can do that.

As Olens’ spokeswoman acknowledged, he’s wrong.

Olens earns a False.