Mexico is offering undocumented foreigners including Americans amnesty if they come forward and apply for legal status.
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“I have heard there are people here who don’t have the proper documents. We have illegal aliens here also,” said Arlene Van Note, a resident in San Miguel de Allende.
“I’m a permanente. I live here all the time,” said Van Note who is retired.
She has her documents in order but other Americans do not.
They’re not climbing over the walls either. They’re driving in. They come in on trains and planes and buses.
Many enter on tourist visas and stay after the document expires.
The issue of undocumented Americans living in Mexico is an open secret in places like San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city that is popular with tourists.
“Yeah, there are some people that I believe are here that are probably undocumented and working,” said Christine Johnson, a legal permanent resident in San Miguel de Allende.
Undocumented Mexicans caught crossing the border into the U.S. are “sent back quickly,” said Francisco Sanchez, a San Miguel native who earns a living shining shoes in the town square.
Rather than face deportation Americans and other foreigners who don’t have documents are getting a chance to legalize their status under a temporary program.
The National Migration Institute webpage describes the program as “directed to all foreigners who have made Mexico their permanent residence, but because of diverse circumstances have not been able to regularize their stay in our country.”
“You are in Mexico. You have been here for years. You have been working and you’re not supposed to. You have a chance to become legal,” said Patricia Munoz, an immigration attorney in San Miguel de Allende.
Munoz has many Americans clients in San Miguel de Allende who want apply for legal resident status in Mexico. Some get frustrated with the bureaucracy.
“Foreigners go and complain to the immigration authorities, they kind of look at you and say ‘you know what they do to Mexicans in the U.S.,'” said Munoz.
Among the biggest differences: the issue of divided families.
“The minute a baby is born in Mexico, the parents can get the residence just to protect the family,” said Munoz.
U.S. citizens who violate Mexico’s immigration laws do face a penalty, usually a fine but most also get the opportunity fix the problem.
This year between Jan. 12 and Dec. 18, the Mexican government is allowing undocumented foreigners who come forward to “legalize” their status to do so without paying a fine.
The Morales family wishes they had the same opportunity in the U.S. “Our kids were born in the United States,” said Daisy Morales, a San Miguel native.
Morales was an undocumented worker living in Fort Worth when her children were born. She returned to Mexico voluntarily to try to get “a pardon” from the U.S. government so she can enter the country legally with her husband and their children.
Right now she is trying to get the children identification documents so they can enroll in school while the family waits U.S. immigration authorities to decide their fate.
“It all depends on what they tell us,” said Morales.
Mexico increased deportations in 2014 sending more than 64,000 foreigners back to their home countries. Deportations peaked over the summer when thousands of Central American migrants were travelling through Mexico on the way to the U.S. border.
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“For a U.S. citizen to get deported he would have to be a criminal. I mean a real huge thing,” said Morales.
“But just because they are living in San Miguel on their retirement money, they won’t get deported.”