Mexico City — While Mexican immigrants led the charge in Chicago and other cities Thursday to push the U.S. government to treat illegal immigrants more humanely, the same demands for immigrant rights are festering in Mexico, which is facing mounting international criticism for how it treats Latin American migrants.
In April, diplomats from El Salvador and Honduras formally protested after dozens of their citizens accused Mexican authorities of brutality while they were detained.
That same month, the top UN advocate for migrant rights toured the country and proclaimed that "the impunity with which Mexico victimizes Central American immigrants makes it the principal violator of human rights on the American continent."
The outcry came as Mexican President Felipe Calderon, while at a North American summit in New Orleans last month, gave his most eloquent defense about the contributions that Mexican immigrants make to the U.S. economy.
That led conservative U.S. lawmakers to accuse Mexico of hypocrisy, and even Mexican lawmakers say the gap between their country's rhetoric and actions has become a problem in pushing the delicate issue of immigration reform.
Before winning election to the Mexican Congress, Jose Nicolas Morales knew about the harsh conditions for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. He lived illegally in Colorado, eventually gaining legal status and U.S. citizenship.
Morales said it is fair to accuse Mexico of a double standard on immigration.
"Mexico never gave what it asked for," said Morales, chairman of the committee that deals with immigration. "We need to give an example to the United States and the rest of the world that the immigrant is a human being, not a criminal."
Morales said the first step occurred this week when Mexican lawmakers made illegal immigration a civil violation, as it is in the U.S., instead of a crime.
Human-rights advocates said the old law had become a tool in exploiting illegal immigrants. Although Mexican officials say few immigrants received the maximum sentence of jail time, immigration agents extorted money by threatening it.
Father Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a shelter for primarily Central American migrants in the southern Mexican town of Ciudad Ixtepec, said the climate against migrants is the harshest he has ever seen.
Mexico has stepped up the use of the military against organized-crime rings and drug traffickers along the Guatemalan border, an issue of national security. But as the crackdown spreads, illegal immigrants are being caught in the middle, Solalinde said.
"They are trampling on human rights, collaterally," Solalinde said by phone. "Why can't we have more creative, more professional and less brutal operations?"
Solalinde said advocates along the Guatemalan border will convene an emergency meeting next week with government officials to discuss how to protect Mexico's security while respecting the dignity of immigrants.