WASHINGTON -- Mexico thought it was promoting tourism and business when it agreed five years ago to allow Brazilians into the country without visas. Instead, the move provoked a wave of illegal immigration into the United States by Brazilians who used Mexico as a springboard.
Now, Brazilians have become one of the largest and fastest-growing categories of illegal US immigrants. They typically cross surreptitiously into the United States after easy, legal entry at Mexican airports.
The number of Brazilians detained at the US-Mexico border in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 is more than three times higher than the total detained a year earlier. From virtually zero a decade ago, undocumented Brazilian migrants detained in the United States will exceed 30,000 this year. Brazil now ranks behind only Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador as a sender of undocumented migrants.
But the agreement that helped spawn the Brazilian flood is about to end. Top Mexican and Brazilian officials confirmed this week that Mexico has informed Brazil that it is suspending the no-visa policy effective Oct. 26 and that from then on, all Brazilian tourists and businesspeople will need visas.
Also affected are Ecuador and South Africa, whose citizens also are currently allowed into Mexico without visas.
To legally enter the United States, Brazilians need visas. US immigration officials were concerned about Mexico's no-visa policy for its effect on the flows of illegal migrants, as well as a possible avenue for terrorists. Department of Homeland Security officials in Washington, however, declined to comment Tuesday on Mexico's policy change.
Brazil said it had no comment on the change, but called it within Mexico's rights as a sovereign nation.
In a statement, Mexican immigration officials said Brazilians now account for nearly two-thirds of all foreigners denied entry to the country. Over the first half of the year, 6,450 Brazilians were denied entry into Mexico.
''Thousands of Brazilians were arriving at the Mexico City airport with one-way air tickets, no hotel reservations or luggage. So they were not your typical tourists or businessmen," said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Brazilians are a tiny fraction of the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants detained in the US-Mexico border area each year. More than 95 percent are Mexicans who are routinely and immediately deported back to Mexico.
But Brazilians and other non-Mexican migrants have exploited a loophole in US policy that enables them in many cases to avoid deportation even after being detained in the United States. Undocumented foreigners from countries other than Mexico with no criminal records can gain release from custody by simply requesting a hearing, which many later skip.
That loophole has spawned a boom of travel agencies offering packages to Mexican cities along the US border. A popular Brazilian soap opera recently dealt with the perils and romance of the northward passage.
The Mexican official said change on the visa requirement was taken on Mexico's own initiative. He said extremist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah had cells in southern Brazil, and his government was concerned that their members could try to enter Mexico.