We are all accustomed to carrying our passports, resident cards, or travel visas when crossing a border; however, in Mexico, it is a good idea to carry proof of your legal presence in the country at all times.
It surprises many foreigners to learn that Mexico is actually quite strict on immigration enforcement. In 2015, Mexico sent 155,418 people back to their countries of origin. If you would like to see what countries they were from, you can click on the following link: 2015 INM Stats.
Additional immigration statistical data is provided by the Mexican government in Excel format at the following link: Boletines Estadísticos.
The Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) is the government agency tasked with handling immigration matters. This agency is the equivalent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the United States.
In addition to screening foreigners entering the country from abroad, INM also conducts random immigration inspections (revisiones aleatorias) throughout the interior of the country. These inspections are not advertised and you can easily find yourself face to face with an INM agent asking for your proof of legal status.
Permanent police checkpoints (filtros) are very common in Mexico. We live in Mexico and we drive through them an average of 3-4 times a day.
The checkpoints are generally positioned on the edge of town on the main routes entering and leaving. As cars pass slowly through the checkpoint, a police officer will “randomly” stop cars and conduct a brief interview with the driver and passengers. The officer will then either let the car pass through, or direct the car to pull into a secondary inspection area where more officers are waiting.
The permanent police checkpoints are a common place for INM to conduct an operation for a few hours. INM agents will stop vehicles with foreigners aboard and request proof of legal presence from all passengers who do not appear to be Mexican. Buses and vans are often singled out for inspection.
We live just south of Playa del Carmen and I have seen INM agents at the police checkpoint on the south side of Playa on multiple occasions.
INM also sets up their own checkpoints without notice. Here is an article from April 18, 2016 about an immigration checkpoint that was set up near Mexico city: Instalan retén de INM en la libre México-Cuernavaca (Spanish).
If you cannot prove your legal presence in the country, you have two choices: 1) call someone to bring the documents to you, or 2) be transported to the INM office for further processing.
Even if a foreigner is lawfully in the country, he or she may not have the proper authorization to work in Mexico. Many foreigners enter on tourist visas and decide to stay and work without authorization.
Locating these individuals is a priority for INM and their agents conduct surprise workplace inspections in areas where foreigners are likely to be located. These inspections are common in the areas of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
If the foreign workers cannot prove their legal presence and authorization to work, they are transported to the nearest INM office for processing.
You may encounter an INM agent even if you are not working or traveling on a major highway.
INM conducts inspections at bus terminals, domestic airports, hotels, hostels, and residential neighborhoods.
In my area, they are occasionally spotted conducting random inspections as people disembark the ferry from Cozumel and Playa del Carmen.
What Proof Do I Need?
If you are in Mexico on a tourist visa, your passport and the visa you were given when you entered.
If you are a legal resident, your temporary or permanent resident card will suffice.
Naturalized citizens should carry appropriate identification, such as your Credencial Para Votar.
If you are only visiting for a few hours on a cruise, you can show your cruise ship identification card.
If you are uncomfortable carrying original documents, you can carry photocopies. Another option is to keep photos of all of the documents on your phone. I like this option the best because most people never leave home without their phone.
The point is that you want to be able to convince the INM agent that you are lawfully in the country. The alternative is a lengthy detention until someone can bring you the proof.