Saturday, April 22, 2006

NAFTA and Immigration

I suspect every American has their own theory about why so many people from Mexico and Central America slip across our borders. Some people genuinely believe that these "illegals" pour across our southern border to get on our welfare rolls and to have access to free, tax-payer funded education and health care. Others believe that they come for the opportunity to start a new life in the land of freedom, free from the corruption and stifling politics of their own land. Me, I've always believed they've come to work, sending their paychecks to support families back home, always intending to return to their homeland, even if their exit is not always possible. Each reason has a bit of truth to it, but none of us has any real solid and objective proof of our positions, and for that reason, we're not exactly sure how to fix the problems that have arisen.

Octavio Ruiz, globalization coordinator for the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition-the Resource Center of the Americas, wrote a very thought provoking opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune which explores one of the elements in this massive and complicated puzzle.

The 12 million Mexicans working in the United States who will be criminalized by proposed immigration legislation are the same people who were promised the possibilities of a decent living with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

...According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of immigrants to the United States from Mexico actually decreased by 18 percent in the three years before NAFTA's implementation. But in the first eight years of NAFTA, the annual number of immigrants from Mexico increased by more than 61 percent.

The cause was twofold. First, NAFTA's agricultural provisions resulted in a flood of subsidized corn being imported into Mexico from the United States. The effect in rural areas was that some 1.5 million rural families -- and some researchers claim twice that -- were driven out of business. Their only options were to move to the cities and seek whatever work, at whatever wage, could be found, or to cross the border. A very large number chose the second option.

[Second] Because NAFTA's labor rules did not provide Mexican workers with gains in workplace rights, the trade deal also hurt urban workers. Deprived of their ability to join unions or to organize, Mexican manufacturing workers saw their real wages fall by more than 20 percent over NAFTA's first five years. Today, workers in the country's vast export manufacturing sector, the maquiladora factories, earn from one-fourth to half of their previous wages. Such pay does not even provide very basic necessities for a family. Many of these workers eventually choose the hardships and uncertainties of crossing the border over the certainty of long hours in unhealthy conditions for below-subsistence wages.

...It is time for a different policy for engagement with the global economy. Instead of one built on maximizing the supply of "cheap labor" and excluding worker rights from our trade agreements, we need one based on raising the standard of living in all nations. Instead of one based on the displacement of small farmers in our trading partner nations, we need one that develops local markets for those farmers. Otherwise, we will continue to push people into a situation where they have few options other than to immigrate north.
[Emphasis added]

Simply building a wall and threatening felony status is not going to be the answer if Mr. Ruiz is correct, and he does make a compelling argument. Our nation, and all of the nations of the developed world, need to stand back and take a long hard look at what unfettered, multinational corporation based globalization has meant to the rest of the world and what it is now costing the wealthier nations.

I recommend you go to the entire piece written by Mr. Ruiz. It is well worth the read.


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