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LAS AMERICAS Tecun Uman to Texas BY LEON LAZAROFF Tecun Uman, Guatemala AXEL OROZCO GOT AS far as Brownsville. After U.S. immigration officials handed the young Honduran to their Mexican counterparts, he was robbed of all his money, about $85, forced to lie on the ground at gunpoint and then tossed in a Matamoros jail for three days without food. In the hands of the Mexican immigration police, says Orozco, 24, beating and extortion are common practice. “They’re terrible people,” he cried, dressed in a dirty shirt and cut-off jeans. “They beat you, rob you and call you names. I would kill them if I could.” Ultimately, Orozco, bruised, bewildered and broke, was bused back to the shabby, teeming Guatemalan border town of Tecum Uman. It’s the same story many Mexicans recite when tossed from one Laredo to another, or from San Diego to Tijuana. But Orozco’ s story comes at a time when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is vigorously protesting California’s Proposition 187 and calling for improved treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States. At the same time, though, Central and South Americans are complaining just as angrily about what they say are routine beatings and extortion at the hands of Mexican police, as well as degrading workplace discrimination and cheated paychecks. Along the country’s densely forested and often-forgotten southern border, Bishop Jorge Arizmendi of Tapachula, Mexico, a city of some 300,000 just 15 miles north of Tecun Uman, says that human rights violations against undocumented Central and South Americans are as common as the immigrants themselves. “Just as our government is demanding the protection of human rights for the Mexicans and Central Americans in the United States, we must do the same here,” says Arizmendi, sitting outside his unsightly concrete church. “It simply must be said: The undocumented have no rights under Mexican law.” Leon Lazaroff is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. BACK IN TECUN UMAN, Orozco sits in a small beat-up park with other poor Hondurans, all vowing to try the long journey again. Like hundreds of other Guatemalans, Peruvians and even the occasional Chinese and Egyptian who have fled corrupt, top-heavy economies, the immigrants gathered here said they want only to reach the United States and a chance at job on a construction site or restaurant. For those who make it, and more so for those who fail, a frightening brush with Mexico’s immigration police is customary. “The Central Americans who are caught are in for a very difficult time,” says a woman who works with a Mexico City advocacy group for Guatemalan refugees. “The Mexican government doesn’t want to talk about the Central Americans; they prefer to keep the focus on their northern border.” Ironically, Mexico has long enjoyed a heroic reputation as a haven for wayward immigrants. Refugees from the Spanish Civil War came to Mexico as did those fleeing dictatorship in Latin America, principally from Pinochet’s Chile. But those immigrants were white and well-educated, and offered great things to a developing country. Conversely, the new immigrants from Nicaragua, Peru and Ecuador are mostly, poor, dark-skinned and unskilled young men with little to offer but the strength of their backs and their rights are not so readily guaranteed. On paper, Mexican law provides generous protection for immigrants, while guaranteeing education and medical services. But human rights advocates say those services are rarely delivered. And even when dealing with applicants for refugee status or attempting to process the rare human-rights complaint, police and government authorities rarely comply with statutes on the books. In practice, current policy boils down to deporting anyone who is apprehended. Deportations have increased from less than 90,000 in 1990 to more than 143,000 in 1993, according to the National Migration Institute, Mexico’s immigration agency. “There is often a gap between what is written in the law and what the reality is on the groundparticularly in far-flung places like Chiapas,” says Bill Frelick, director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Commit tee for Refugees. “Protection of immigrants’ human rights leaves much to be desired.” Education is a good example. While Mexico’s 1991 General Population Act mandates a public education for every child regardless of citizenship, public schools in Mexico routinely require a birth certificate or a passport and visa. But few immigrants hold such documents. So, they’re turned away. In the United States, children of undocumented workers are guaranteed an education by the Supreme Court’s 1982 Plyler v. Doe decision, although Proposition 187 aims to skirt that judgement. For undocumented immigrants entering Mexico, the situation is equally onerous when they attempt to seek medical help. Because most hospitals require proof of social security, undocumented workers, lacking, such papers, are commonly asked to leave. More distressing, hospitals and health clinics are required to notify immigration officials when an alien comes looking for assistance. Therefore, many Central Americans say they prefer to use church medical services, which are scarceor nothing at all. “They’re afraid of being turned in, so they’ll find other ways,” says Oswaldo Valdemar Cuevas, the Guatemalan Consul in Tapachula. And then there is life on the farm. While Mexico claims it must aggressively police its southern border to protect jobs for naChiapas’ huge coffee and fruit plantations are conveniently allowed to pick up Guatemalans at border checkpoints and take them back at night. Farms in the northern states of Sonora and Sinaloa also use cheap Central American labor. But like Mexicans entering Texas, Guatemalan and Honduran farmhands can triple their wages by wading across a river that serves as an international border, in this case the Suchiate River. Once in Mexico, though, Central Americans complain of having to endure excessive hours, indecent housing and short-changed wages. Child labor laws are routinely violated. “This is a terrible injustice that must change,” adds Valdemar. With straight faces, Mexican human rights officials say that incidents of cruel treatment are few. But the low numbers 16 JANUARY 13, 1995