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Mexico's illegal immigrants? Americans.

The majority of illegal immigrants in Mexico come not from Central America, but from the US.

Mexican flags
A couple admire Mexico flags used through its history at the Obispado lookout in Monterrey, Sept. 14, 2010. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — It may be the dream of some college seniors to spend a year post-graduation working “under the table” serving pints in some glorious European city. But thousands of American adults living on the lam in Mexico?

As in the United States, estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in Mexico at any given time are hard to come by. But the majority are ex-pats from the U.S., according to Mexico’s federal bureau of immigration.

Many undocumented Americans arrive not knowing how long they’ll stay, don’t get the appropriate papers and end up in the country illegally, said Mexican immigration agent Beatrice Amparo Perez Alatorre.

With all of the discussion about Arizona’s controversial immigration law — and illegal immigration in the U.S. in general — many people have countered that Mexico should take a look at its own immigration laws and problems.

Critics allege that thousands of migrants from Central American countries enter Mexico illegally and are mistreated along the way, with offenses ranging from illegal requests for documents to extortion and rape. They charge that Mexican migrants are subject to abuses that mirror — or are far worse — than the treatment immigrants receive in the United States.

Human rights reports have shown that abuse of migrants, many in transit to the U.S., is, in fact, a problem in Mexico. And Perez admitted that despite the law, “I think it happens.”

But what the reports don’t address is that these travelers dealing with abuses are a small number of the total illegal immigrant population in Mexico. Experts suggest the percentages by home country may mirror those of legal foreign-born residents. Some 70 percent of legal foreign-born Mexicans come from the U.S. The next largest number, about 5 percent, hail from Guatemala.

Pieces in U.S. media from the Washington Times to the Concord Monitor have inaccurately claimed that Mexico’s policy is to jail and deport those found to be illegally in the country. 

But rather than deporting people who don’t have authorization to be in the country, there is a process for “regularizing” these immigrants. According the law, said Perez, illegal immigrants are “never” arrested and sent to jail unless they have committed a crime in Mexico or in their home countries.

Once foreigners have been living in Mexico legally for five years, they can become citizens.

Many Americans, like Barbara Rudd, find Mexico appealing as a retirement option, with its warm climate, rich culinary tradition and affordable property. A smaller number come for work or vacation and decide to stick around. And still others fall in love and eventually end up marrying and remaining in the country.

Rudd, 62, has been living in Mexico for more than five years. She and her husband retired to the Lake Chapala region outside of Guadalajara and bought a house in the town of Jocotopec. And while, she says, she doesn’t want to renounce her American citizenship, she does want to stay in Mexico for her remaining days.