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Global doors slam shut on immigrants

While Arizona's anti-immigrant law gets all the attention, countries around the world are pursuing tough immigration polices on a scale rarely seen in history.

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Yet many advocates still think more attention needs to be paid to the safety and humanitarian needs of migrants rather than just devising ways to keep them out. Their point was punctuated in August when 72 Central and South Americans were massacred in northern Mexico, allegedly at the hands of drug traffickers, because they refused to work as recruits for the gang. The case was not an isolated one: Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights issued a report claiming that 10,000 migrants were kidnapped in a six-month period from September 2008 through February 2009.

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"There is a double standard," says Manuel Angel Castillo, an immigration expert at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. "We have no strong policy to detect and sanction those responsible for violations against migrants."

At the Casa del Migrante, an immigration center constructed last year near the tracks in Tultitlan, almost all of those passing through have grim stories to tell. Juan Palacios, from Nicaragua, says he had planned to reach US soil, but after one of his friends was kidnapped as he waited for a train, he lost his nerve to continue on. "I did not know how dangerous the journey was," says Mr. Palacios. "For now, I prefer to stay in Mexico."

Brenda Sevilla, a Honduran migrant attempting a journey to Houston, says she and her older sister were approached by federal police as they entered a Mexico City bus station. To hide their identities, they used Mexican slang but it didn't work. The officials demanded money or threatened to turn them in to immigration officials. They took off with all their cash – $100 – and Ms. Sevilla's earrings.

"Between getting caught in the US or Mexico, the US is way better," she says. "In the US, they deport you. In Mexico, they rob you or kidnap you."

Despite the horrors migrants face passing through Mexico, one thing that distinguishes today's cycle of anti-immigrant sentiment from many previous ones is the lack of violence. While there are major exceptions – such as the 2008 riots in South Africa – the kinds of overt assaults of the past are largely absent.

"You could look at European politics and make a good argument that there has been an anti-immigrant rightward shift almost across the board," says Miller. "Very few of them are now not characterized by an anti-immigrant party. But then you have to think about it; the anti-immigrant politics is much less violent and radical today. States don't treat them with the same brutality."

And that might be because governments understand that migrants are coming, no matter what. Even in the wake of the global economic downturn, immigrants continue to journey across borders, undaunted. Mexicans aren't returning home in large numbers from the US. Albanians continue to seek jobs in the EU. Thais are plowing farms in Israel.

"The fundamental process will not stop and go away," Miller says. "It will endure."

• Staff writer Scott Baldauf in Johannesburg, South Africa, and contributors Ilene R. Prusher in Jerusalem and Susan Sachs in Paris contributed to this report.

IN PICTURES: A haven for migrants in Mexico