Republic Mexico City Bureau
Jan. 1, 2005 12:00 AM
MEXICO CITY - The Mexican government is giving out a colorful new comic book with advice for migrants, but immigration-control advocates worry that some of the tips may encourage illegal border crossers.
The 32-page book, The Guide for the Mexican Migrant, was published in December by Mexico's Foreign Ministry. Using simple language, the book offers safety information for border crossers, a primer on their legal rights and advice on living unobtrusively in the United States.
Dramatic drawings show undocumented immigrants wading into a river, running from the U.S. Border Patrol and crouching near a hole in a border fence. On other pages, they hike through a desert with rock formations reminiscent of Arizona and are caught by a stern-faced Border Patrol agent.
"This guide is intended to give you some practical advice that could be of use if you have made the difficult decision to seek new work opportunities outside your country," the book says.
But immigration-control groups questioned some of the guide's advice.
"This is more than just a wink and a nod," said Rick Oltman, Western field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This is so transparent, this is the Mexican government trying to protect its most valuable export, which is illegal migrants."
The book is being distributed as a free supplement to El Libro Vaquero, a popular cowboy comic book, in five Mexican states that send many migrants to the United States: Zacatecas, Michoacán, Puebla, Oaxaca and Jalisco. The government plans to print 1.5 million copies.
The book comes with a yellow disclaimer saying it does not promote undocumented immigration, and it repeatedly warns against crossing illegally. But it gives no information about the steps for seeking a U.S. visa.
Instead, it offers frank safety tips. In the section on crossing rivers, it notes, "Thick clothing increases your weight when wet, and this makes it difficult to swim or float."
On crossing the desert, it says, "Try to walk during times when the heat is not as intense" and says migrants should follow power lines or train tracks if they get lost.
The book warns migrants that they may have to walk for days to reach towns or roads in the desert and that they will not be able to carry enough water or food.
But it also shows a woman adding salt to a water bottle and advises, "Salt water helps you retain your body's liquids. Although you'll feel thirstier, if you drink water with salt the risk of dehydration is much lower."
Mexican authorities say they're just trying to keep migrants safe.
"We are not inviting them to cross, but we're doing everything we can to save lives," said Elizabeth García Mejía, chief coordinator for the Nogales, Sonora, section of Mexico's Grupo Beta migrant protection service.
Carlos Flores Vizcarra, Mexican consul general of Phoenix, said he had not seen the guide until a reporter showed it to him.
He said the guide appeared to be only the latest attempt by the Mexican government to warn migrants about the dangers of crossing the border without proper documentation.
The reality, however, is that many migrants will try to do so anyway, he said.
"This is nothing new. It's a way to put it in very simple terms so people will understand the risks," Flores Vizcarra said. "The intention is out of concern for human rights. People are doing it anyway. We cannot ignore that there is a very big migration between our two countries, and people who are coming to work need to understand the risks."
Some migrants from Mexico who have crossed the border illegally in the past said the guide seems to send a mixed message.
"On the one hand they seem to be saying, 'Don't cross,' but on the other hand they are saying, 'Cross,' " Humberto Morales, 22, an undocumented immigrant from Oaxaca working as a day laborer in Phoenix, said after looking at a copy.
He doubts the guide will keep many people in Mexico from crossing illegally, but he said it could help save lives.
"We have lots of programs like this in Mexico, but people keep crossing," Morales said.
No official at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Mexico City would agree to an interview about the comic book, despite repeated requests through the ministry's media relations office.
The book's pictures are drawn to match the style of El Libro Vaquero. They portray the migrants as strong and healthy men and women, wading into a river or walking through the desert.
One section of the book urges caution when dealing with immigrant smugglers, known as coyotes or polleros. It shows migrants climbing into the back of a tractor-trailer, a possible reference to the 19 migrants who died in Texas after being sealed in a tractor-trailer in May 2003.
On getting caught
Another section warns migrants not to lie to U.S. authorities or use false identification, and it gives instructions on what to do if caught by the Border Patrol.
"Don't throw stones or objects at the officer or patrol vehicles because this is considered a provocation," it says. "Raise your hands slowly so they see you are unarmed."
A picture shows a group of migrants running from a Border Patrol sport utility vehicle, though the text urges them not to flee.
"It's better to be detained a few hours and repatriated to Mexico than to get lost in the desert," it says.
Seven pages are devoted to migrants' legal rights after they are detained and another four to living peacefully in the United States.
"Avoid attracting attention, at least while you are arranging your stay or documents to live in the United States," it says. "The best formula is to not alter your routine of going from work to home."
The Arizona Republic faxed copies of the guide to the U.S. Border Patrol, FAIR and two groups that support stronger controls on immigration.
A Border Patrol spokesman said he does not think the book encourages illegal crossers.
"If they've already gone ahead and made that decision to cross illegally . . . then anything that helps protect lives is worth it," said Andy Adame, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector.
But the immigration-control groups said some of the advice goes beyond protecting migrants and, instead, encourages them.
"A lot of it is disclaimers, but then there's this part about if you're going to cross the desert, do it when the sun isn't so hot," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "It's a mixed message."
Said John Vincent, editor of a newsletter published by Virginia-based Americans for Immigration Control: "It really looks like the Mexican government is encouraging illegal immigration. It shows the contempt that the Mexican government has for our laws."
The Mexican government produces a similar book aimed at Central American immigrants who try to enter Mexico illegally. The book covers much of the same information about legal rights and repeats many of the warnings. It even shows a group of migrants struggling to breathe inside a truck.
But that book doesn't give the same kind of safety tips on crossing the border or advise immigrants on how to live peacefully in Mexico.
Reporter Daniel Gonzalez contributed to this article.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org