Migrants’ regularization, a pending issue  for Mexican migratory policy

Rafael Alonso Hernández López. El Colegio de la Frontera Norte

The year 2010 marked a turning point in Mexico’s approach to migratory policy. The massacre of 72 migrants from Central and South America victimized by organized crime in the ranch of San Fernando, Tamaulipas in northern Mexico, positioned irregular migration in transit through Mexico at the forefront of the country’s political and social agenda for the first time. 


Faced with these circumstances, the following year, the Mexican government issued a Migration Law, the first specific normative framework regulating international mobility, transit, admission and legal stay of foreigners in the country, as well as emigration and return of Mexican migrants.


The new law was presented as an progressive mechanism advancing  the protection of undocumented migrants’ human rights. One of the most significant aspects of the law was to explicitly recognize that entering or staying in the country without proper documentation was not a crime, and that one’s migratory status would not be used to presumed the commission of crime. In other words, entering the country without proper documentation would only be considered an administrative violation. 


The new Migration Law transformed the old migration management system, which included more than 38 migratory modalities, to a system of conditions of stay: Visitors, Temporary Residents and Permanent Residents. As a mechanism to distinguish the temporality and activity of foreigners who come to Mexico, each condition was assigned conditions to grant or deny work permits.


Despite all the changes to the migration management system, people in the most vulnerable condition were excluded from significant and efficient mechanisms to enter or stay regularly in Mexico. Consequently, irregular migratory flows continue to occur in a context of  increased risk and violence pushed by policies perpetuating clandestine mobility. 


The Mexican government has chosen to approach irregular flows coming from Central America, with the issuance of a modality of visitor status that allow them to stay in the country, but only for a very short period of time (usually less than 180 days). The visitor migratory status also includes visitors or workers from border regions and migrants for humanitarian reasons.


On the one hand, taking into account historical dynamics and flow mobilities between the Central American region (particularly Guatemala) and the southern part of the country, visitor and border worker cards would serve to regulate mobility in the border strip of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. People would be provided with the issuance of a border visitor card with which they could enter Mexico to carry out tourist and commercial activities, but not work, for no longer than 7 days. Moreso, due to the historical labor migration in the coffee farms of the Soconusco region in the state of Chiapas, border worker cards were issued. 


On the other hand,  the “visitor for humanitarian reasons” cards would serve to recognize the right of migrants to access justice or health services derived from an incident suffered during the migratory journey, effectively working as a mechanism to ensure that people were not returned to their countries of origin while in the middle of aforementioned processes.


All these mechanisms appeared to be the response to increasingly intense mobility dynamics. However, stays circumscribed to the border, very limited in their geographic scope, and which do not necessarily respond to the labor needs of people, excludes -in some cases- the possibility of accessing work, and ignores the southern part of the country as a historically marginalized region without necessary and sufficient conditions to insert these flows into employment.


Furthermore, Mexican government, based on the paradigm of national security not on that of security and human dignity, continues to privilege a restrictive approach to irregular migration. As a result, Mexican immigration policy has translated into strict immigration controls based on the detection of people with an irregular migratory status, their deprivation of liberty in immigration detention centers - called migratory stations- , and their deportation to their places of origin.


Almost 10 years after the entry into force of the new Migration Law, the National Migration Institute has carried out more than a million events of deportations of people (UPM, Several years), most of them from  northern Central America. 


Those who are not deported are practically condemned to clandestinity and consequently to limited access to rights recognized in Mexican Migration Law. This has favored the creation of informal ways to access or stay in Mexico. For example, it is increasingly common - in southern regions of the country, and given sociocultural, linguistic and phenotypic similarities with the northern region of Central America - for people to buy identity documents that accredit them as a population of southern Mexico.


The lack of political will and of protection in Mexican immigration policy, have made regularization a mechanism that excludes the vast majority of people from the possibility of access or stay with dignity and safety in our country. Consequently, access to other types of rights is limited, thereby fostering networks of crime, human trafficking and corruption.


Confronted with this reality, Mexican civil society has pushed for initiatives to bring migrants closer to regularization mechanisms. In this sense, the work carried out by the Citizen Council of the National Institute of Migration (INM) along with civil society organizations, has resulted in strategies to encourage the INM to develop temporary programs for migratory regularization. Those strategies are developed with the strong conviction that regularization leads to access to basic rights to achieve social, labor, educational and cultural inclusion. Regularization programs give people residing in the country without proper documentation and/or outside common paths to regularization, the opportunity to obtain an immigration document that allows them to fully access the services provided by the Mexican state without fear of being returned to their countries. So far,  in its two editions (2015 and 2017), the temporary program resulted in more than 10 thousand requests, with almost 9 thousand of them resulting in a  positive outcome, thus underscoring the  pressing need for a regularization path for a large sector of the migrant population in the country.


Finally, the health emergency caused by SARS-COV2 (Covid-19) pandemic, has highlighted the need to change regulatory frameworks and the overall management of the country’s irregular migratory flows. The pandemic has further limited the scarce government action in caring for migrants, and, at the same time, has also reduced the capacity of civil society to respond and provide services and protection to migrant populations. Consequently, migrants’ vulnerability has increased, in a context where, it is not possible for them to access a formal job. It is now more clear than ever, that an unavoidable step to promote and safeguard the human rights of migrants is to guarantee regularization as a permanent and easily accessible practice for those with an irregular migratory status in our country. 



Migration Policy Unit (UPM) (Several years). Statistical bulletins. Available at… Consulted on September 12, 2020.

Migration Law (2011). Available at Consulted on September 12, 2020.