Root Causes of Immigration - NAFTA

OneAmerica Executive Director Pramila Jayapal spoke at the Urban Poverty Forum at Town Hall in Seattle on Sunday, February 13, 2011. The Forum, planned by Real Change News, aims to open a dialogue about the systemic issues surrounding urban poverty and to work together to address the problems the poorest among us face every day.

Pramila spoke about the systemic causes of illegal immigration and the subsequent problems facing Mexican immigrants who escape abject poverty in their homeland. Her comments are below and a corresponding PowerPoint of her presentation is available here.

For as long as we have known, people have migrated in the world. From one village to another, one town to another, one city to another, one country to another. But today, we are in a period of tremendous migration and immigration—brought about by pressures on land, war, poverty and of course our own trade and foreign policy decisions.

The estimate is that about a billion people today are on the move across the world and about 214 million people live in a country other than the one where they were born. One in seven people in the world is a migrant, and here in the United States, we have about 33 million or 20% of the world’s migrant population within our borders.  

There is no question that globalization contributes to migration. And I want to be clear that when I use the word globalization, I think we have to be careful to use it with all its glory and all its shame. There are many things about globalization and movement that are necessary and good. Advances in communication and transportation technology allow us to live in a world where distances between countries and travel time are no longer as significant an obstacle—for many of us who live far away from our parents, that is food for the soul. It’s also food for revolution—let’s not forget that the revolution we just had in Egypt simply would not have been possible in the same time frame and way without aspects of communications advances and the pressure of the whole world looking in. Can we hear it for the people of Egypt?

Globalization and Disparity

So really, when we talk about the dark side of globalization, what we are talking about is corporatization of the commons. The role of government, driven by corporations, taking over what used to belong to the people. Production of crops being subsidized by governments in order to benefit corporations, as an example. The ownership of public goods such as water or land to benefit a small group rather than the whole.  

We know that disparities between developing and developed nations have accelerated with globalization. In 1900, the ratio of the average income of the five richest countries in the world to the 5-10 poorest countries was about 9:1. Today that ratio is 100:1. These disparities among countries combined with limited opportunities for employment that provides high enough wages to care for one's family have stimulated increased migration from developing to developed nations. Here in the U.S., the weakening of the labor movement has been a big part of increasing disparity and the collapse of middle class jobs; now to not even a tenth of all workers having the collective power of being part of a union.  

It’s important to note too that migrants are often propping up the economies in their home countries through remittances, money sent home to support families at home, mostly in amounts like $100 or $200 at a time, and often through informal networks of money transfer agents. In 2005, global foreign remittances totaled more than $300 billion, about three times all aid provided by donor nations to developing countries and twice as much as even direct foreign investment. Remittances to India, Mexico, China and the Philippines all totaled more than $20 billion to each country.

And in some countries like Haiti and Jordan, remittances accounted for about 20% of GDP. And of course, in order for these workers to be sending money home, the flip side of remittances in the U.S. is that immigrants are making our own economy here churn and there is enormous value to the work of immigrant laborers here that everyone in America benefits from.  

So, as you can see, our economies are intricately intertwined with each other today, and our populations are intricately intertwined. Some of you know that at OneAmerica, as the state’s largest immigrant rights organization, we have been fighting fiercely for comprehensive immigration reform, which I will talk about as well. But one of the things that we rarely get to talk about is if the anti-immigrant sentiment were to succeed in pushing out huge numbers of undocumented and legal immigrants, what would happen to the development that is facilitated in origin countries through remittances? The effects could be catastrophic for the entire world, plunging those countries into even more poverty.


So, let’s talk about free-trade agreements and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) specifically. The reality is that free trade agreements can take advantage of inequality to drive a real hard bargain that has devastating consequences on local economies and can push them further into poverty. In the case of NAFTA, never before had an agreement gone so far to integrate the economies of countries that were so unequal.

NAFTA gave the U.S. maximum access to Mexican resources and markets. We conceded very little to Mexico. U.S. firms gained access to Mexico’s financial, agricultural, energy, textile and manufacturing sectors, but Mexican firms were blocked in their efforts to access the U.S. transport, agricultural and textile sectors. Mexico was not allowed to maintain many of its agricultural subsidies and manufacturing tariffs, yet the U.S. was able to keep most of its own.

Previously ejidos, communal farming land, could not be bought and sold. This was a right protected by Mexico’s constitution. These communal lands comprised 29,000 communities and three million producers, encompassing 75% of all agricultural production at the time. Foreign investment was hesitant to move into Mexico with this constitutional provision and so changing it constitutionally became a requirement of NAFTA. Now, government subsidies that had allowed ejidos to survive were disallowed by NAFTA.

The ejidos were divided and a title was given to individual campesinos. These farm workers tried to make a living on their small pieces of land just as their families had done for centuries, but they found that the rules of the game had been changed. They were now competing with subsidized large farm agriculture from the U.S.

I also want to take a moment to emphasize the importance of corn to Mexico, as part of the economy and as part of the culture and the effects of NAFTA on corn. When NAFTA was being negotiated, three million farmers or 40% of Mexicans in agriculture farmed corn. Corn is central to Mexico. It’s a cheap staple food that is also healthy. It’s eaten daily and has sustained the poor for centuries. A family of four eats about two pounds of tortillas every day.  

Corn in Mexico goes beyond simple sustenance. It is even part of their creation story told in the Mayan Book of the People, the Popol Vuh. The story goes that the gods tried to make humans out of mud but they dissolved. They tried wood but these humans lacked souls and brains. It is not until the animals bring them yellow and white corn that they are able to make the first people.

When NAFTA was being negotiated, 40% of all Mexicans working in agriculture were cultivating corn. NAFTA prohibited government subsidies of both corn and beans in Mexico, despite its economic and cultural significance.

Of course, this meant that US-subsidized corn could flood the Mexican market—and notice that there was no provision that said the US government couldn’t subsidize US farmers production of corn.  

From 1997-2005, US-subsidized corn went into Mexico at about 19% below the cost of production.  

What happened? You can imagine. Mexicans couldn’t compete. 1.3 million farmers were driven out of business and monthly income for self-employed farmers plummeted from 1,959 pesos a month in 1991 to 228 pesos a month in 2003.

A campaign to end the inclusion of corn and beans as part of NAFTA has the slogan Sin Maiz, No Hay Paiz. Without corn there is no country. Indeed the result of NAFTA has left many communities in Mexico without working age men and often few working age women.

What would you do if you could no longer feed your family? What would you do if your country’s economy has just been destroyed by a neighboring country to the north and now their economy was booming and there were jobs there that needed more and more agricultural workers because their own workers were moving away from that kind of labor in the fields? What would you do if your wife was sick, or your children could not get an education where you were anymore?

Let me tell you what happened to Teo, one of our members, who found himself exactly in this situation. Teo was part of an ejido—and it’s important to understand that the ejidos were much more than just an economic arrangement. This was social, cultural and economic. It was a different way of being. When NAFTA passed, and the government said to Teo and all of the members of the ejido that the land would no longer be communal and instead would be split up and divided into small parcels for each farmer to work, Teo honestly was happy. He believed what he was told—that he would be able to provide for his family better. But—it wasn’t the case. Now, he needed to buy his own machinery to work the land. He needed to buy the seed and other materials but he was now just an individual buying small amounts and could not negotiate good prices. He went to the bank to get a loan but with such a small piece of property and no other assets, he couldn’t get one. Finally, after trying and trying to make it work and his family starving, he felt he had no option but to come to America through a very dangerous border crossing.
Teo is one of millions of people who risk everything to try and make ends meet for our families.

It probably goes without saying that NAFTA never addressed the impact of its policy on the people of Mexico and did not include any provisions for immigration as part of the policy. This is highly ironic because free trade and globalization allows for the free flow of goods, capital, resources, information services (primarily in one direction) but does NOT allow for the free flow of labor.

Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border

The passage of NAFTA has also gone hand in hand with the militarization of the border. In 1994, right after passage of NAFTA, the U.S. launched Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, which was an all-out effort to stop the inflow of Mexican labor through the construction of a steel wall from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Madre Mountains.  

Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey, founder of the Mexican Migration Project, has looked at how sharply border enforcement increased with the economic integration of the U.S. and Mexico. He writes, “During the first decade after market unification, the U.S. spent $32 billion to harden the border with its newest trading partner.” The number of border patrol agents tripled in the next decade and the Border Patrol’s budget soared from $1.5 million dollars in 1986 to $3 billion in 2010. In 2009, it was reported that in the 15 years since Operation Gatekeeper over 5,600 people died trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border, while apprehensions have fallen sharply. In 2004, it was reported that a migrant is more likely to die than be apprehended by the border patrol.

But again a huge irony—research suggests that the militarization of the border has only prevented circular movement, resulting in more families settling permanently and in a wide variety of non-traditional destinations. And what we see from the Pew Research Center’s figures on undocumented immigrants in the U.S. is that there was a big surge in 1997 and 1998, a few years after the passage of NAFTA and the militarization of the border. 

The Myth of American Jobs

In today’s environment, immigrants are blamed for taking US jobs—jobs, by the way, often created because of trade with other countries and by multi-national corporations that sell their products in other parts of the world.  If I can just say that a pet peeve of mine is the way that our friends in the labor movement and politicians sometimes talk about American jobs being shipped overseas. It is absolutely right for American workers to see that something is really wrong with the way things are today, that they are being manipulated by corporations. But to blame immigrants or claiming that a job in today’s world is American simply because the corporation has headquarters in America is simplistic and jingoistic. The reality is that there is no such thing anymore—whether we like it or not—as an American job. Those jobs are created primarily by multinational corporations like Boeing and Microsoft who make enormous profits from sales to other countries.

So if 80% of your revenue comes from global markets, is it an American job?

The reality is that along with the issues of NAFTA, worldwide migration and US foreign policy that created wars that drove huge migration (such as in Iraq), we have an outdated, race-based immigration system that simply doesn’t account for the reality of today’s economy in America and the need for immigrants. 

Repeating History?

And I am so glad this forum is happening after yesterday’s commemoration of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the forced and brutal marching out of Chinese laborers who had built this country’s railroads only to be pushed out and become the scapegoats for white Americans who felt that immigrants were taking their jobs (sound familiar?). Much of our restrictive race-based immigration policies can be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act, including the notion of “gatekeepers”—and the concept of a true America.

Our immigration system has not been adjusted for decades for the needs of our economy.  Today, we have 4-5 million families who have applied legally for their family members to come into the U.S. and wait sometimes 20 years to bring them in. We have 12 million undocumented immigrants who are the target of some of the worst racist and anti-immigrant sentiment we have seen in decades, who are making the economy run—just like the Chinese and Japanese and many other laborers before them.  

And poverty in immigrant families is increasing, even as states around the country try to cut off services. Layer immigration status on top of poverty and the effects on Teo and millions like him are devastating.  

Let’s just look quickly at our own state of Washington. A quarter of the foreign born are below 100% of poverty and another quarter between 100-200% of poverty. Nearly half of children in immigrant families are living below 200% of the poverty line and children of parents who don’t speak English are most deeply affected. And in our intertwined world—immigration status is no different. Over five million children live in families with undocumented parents and over two-thirds are US-born citizens.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do to lift everyone out of poverty but the way to do it is not to try and deport all immigrants. Much of this migration to the U.S. was caused by our own policies like NAFTA and by wars America started like in Iraq. It’s convenient to blame immigrants but it’s not true and it’s not humane. 

Fighting Back

We need everyone in this room to fight back against the increasing anti-immigrant vitriol. Against laws like SB1070 in Arizona. Against the current situation in Washington state, where Democrats in the legislature are proposing to restrict driver’s licenses to only those with legal status even though our state desperately needs workers to support some of our largest industries that drive our economy, such as agriculture. We need you to join us in fighting back against cutting Apple Health care for undocumented kids or eliminating medical interpreters, against the idea that there are some of us that don’t deserve these services.  

We know that times are tough and immigrants have to bear their fair share of the burden, but we also know that immigrants are contributing every day just like everyone else. When we go to pay sales tax on the things we buy, or taxes on our homes and cars,  we are never asked for immigration status before we pay a tax. We need your help to stop the tide of even moderate and mostly liberal Americans who are allowing themselves to blame immigrants for their poor healthcare and their loss of a job instead of focusing their anger on corporations.

We need your help because if we don’t fight this, we as a nation will lose our soul. We lose our values and we lose our spirit. We lose our belief in the collective. We allow ourselves to be divided and forget that we can only be strong if we are together. We need our own ejidos here in America, places where we remember that every one of us is tied to the other, an injury to one is an injury to all, and if we allow ourselves to take misplaced anger and let is divide us, we WILL lose.

So join us in bringing all of us together so we don’t fight against each other but instead, fight against corporations and against government regulations that keep people in poverty all around the world and here in the U.S. As part of that, become a member of OneAmerica and join the tremendous movement we have built to stand up for real justice and democracy, for immigrant, human and civil rights.

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