The current high level of immigration into the United States is part of a worldwide phenomenon. Almost every industrial country in the world is registering large numbers of people from poorer countries who are arriving without papers every day. While Mexicans die in the Sonora desert trying to enter the United States, Africans drown in the Atlantic and Mediterranean trying to get into Spain, Italy and France. All over the world, millions are on the move.

What is the cause of this massive uprooting? Though some people are fleeing war, and others political persecution, the vast majority who hit the immigrant trail are pushed into it by the ravages of corporate globalization. How does this work?

Mexico, the source of the greatest number of immigrants to the United States today, is a good example. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada forced Mexico to turn over state-owned industries to private corporations, cut spending on health and education, and eliminate tariffs that protected small farmers.

In the years since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, six million Mexicans have been forced off the land. Mexico is now a net importer of food, whereas it used to be a net exporter.

How were the farmers driven off the land? The first step was the “harmonization” required by NAFTA in which laws – even constitutions – of the signatories to NAFTA were to be made “equal.” Thus, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was modified to allow foreign companies to buy agricultural land. So marginal farmers were tempted to cash in and leave.

More importantly, the elimination of certain tariff barriers allowed a flood of cheap corn from the United States and Canada, undercutting the prices of Mexican farmers and driving them to the cities and, ultimately, across the border into the U.S.

NAFTA, like all “neoliberal” projects, was “sold” as helping develop the Mexican economy by attracting new investment and thus creating jobs.

(Neoliberalism refers to a set of policies that transnational corporations impose on developing countries in exchange for giving those countries access to loans and investment. The developing countries are required to “liberalize” their economic policies, cut spending on health and education, privatize industries, and open their markets to imports, even at the expense of their own producers.)

But NAFTA also undercut Mexican national industry and closed factories and other workplaces. The exodus from the countryside of millions of desperately poor people has dragged the average industrial wage in Mexico down to half of pre-NAFTA levels. While a few rich people have become richer, for most Mexicans NAFTA has been a disaster.

Variants of this theme are going on all over the world, in every poor country, leading to mass disruption of national lives and economies, massive movement of rural people to urban areas where there are not enough jobs to absorb them, and, thus, massive cross-border migration from poorer to wealthier countries.

And in every “rich” country, immigrants find two kinds of enemies: brutal exploiters of immigrant labor, and racist immigrant-baiters – employers who take advantage of immigrants’ precarious legal status to work them to death, and political demagogues who present immigrants as all being potential terrorists and call for their mass expulsion. It is ironic that under neoliberal globalization, capital is allowed to move wherever it likes, but labor is not.

We must fight for the political, social and labor union rights of immigrants. However, people in countries like Mexico should also not have to leave their homeland to avoid starvation. Poorer countries need to be able to get out of poverty, which they never will achieve with policies like NAFTA.

We must also fight against the corporate controlled neoliberal agenda that keeps poor countries poor, and the political and military force that backs it. This force has a name – it is called imperialism.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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