Mexico's illegal immigrants? Americans.

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.

On this particular day at the immigration office, she is upgrading her status to official “immigrant” after the five-year waiting period.

“I come and go and do what I want,” Rudd said. “It’s so easy to own property. Compared to the U.S., it’s a breeze.”

Though Rudd says she has gone through the process legally, those who are in the country illegally and later decide they want to become citizens have little to fear.

If it is discovered someone is living in the country without the appropriate documents, as long as they have not committed a crime they are required to pay a fine and then can begin the process of regularization to get on track to citizenship.

“To be undocumented in Mexico is not a criminal offense,” said Jorge Durand, a professor of the study of social movement at the University of Guadalajara and author of more than a dozen books on Mexican migration.

According to Mexico’s immigration law, illegal entry into Mexico, violating terms of a visa or trying to get back into the country after being deported could result in a fine equivalent to 20 to 100 days of minimum wage in Mexico — or between $83.60 and $441.00. (As of January 2010, there were three different minimum wages, the equivalent of $4.41, $4.29 or $4.18 a day depending on place of residence.)

The one violation that may carry a prison sentence is aiding in the transport of illegal immigrants into Mexico. This could result in 12 years in jail and a hefty fine of 10,000 days of minimum wage pay — $41,800 to $44,100.

But, generally, those in the country illegally are fined, told to make their status legal and sent on their way.

“Right now, our goal is to make it easier for foreigners to come here,” Perez said.