Why they migrate

It appears that none of the Republican presidential candidates have respect for the words on the Statue of Liberty, as all would take harsh measures against immigrants. It also seems that they are willing to ignore the damaging effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite the defeat of nearly every Republican candidate in races last fall in which free trade and fair trade were issues.

In Mexico, farm crises, sweatshop wages and police repression drive workers and farmers to leave family, friends and country in search of jobs to support their families. The Republicans alternately offer silence and demagogy, neither of which will solve the problems caused by unjust trade agreements and corporate exploitation of immigrants.

In the National Catholic Reporter (November 2005), Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini, president of the Bishop’s Secretariat of Central America, wrote, “People who wonder why there is such passionate opposition to the Central America Free Trade Agreement — an expansion of the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement to six more nations — need look no further than the results of NAFTA in Mexico during the last decade. NAFTA displaced 1.5 million Mexican peasant farmers. Many of these displaced farmers sought industrial jobs, causing Mexican wages to drop by 20 percent. Communities and families were torn asunder as those who lost their livelihoods undertook the perilous journey to the United States in hopes of finding some way to support their family.”

In 2002 alone, 600 Mexican farmers per day were forced off the land due to NAFTA, by U.S. agribusiness dumping subsidized food exports on Mexico. Even though Mexico produces corn cheaper, U.S. corporate agriculture is able to price its corn lower because of subsidies of billions paid for by our tax dollars. In the past five years, more than 1,600 Mexican migrants have lost their lives in their attempts to find jobs in the U.S.

Conditions are similar in other nations. Brazil and Guatemala can grow and harvest sugar cheaper than the U.S. African nations produce cotton at one-fifth the U.S. cost. Yet U.S. agribusiness subsidies ruin honest work. Even U.S. small farmers suffer when subsidies go to agribusiness rather than to family farms.

Journalist David Bacon writes of the impact of NAFTA on Mexico: “Privatization increased prices of necessities and reduced real wages to disastrous levels. Mexican salaries were a third of those in the U.S. in the 1970s. They are now less than an eighth. It is this disparity which both impoverishes Mexican workers and acts as an immigration magnet. Over the last two decades, the income of Mexican workers has lost 76 percent of its purchasing power. Under pressure from foreign lenders, the Mexican government has ended subsidies on the prices of basic necessities, including gasoline, electricity, bus fares, tortillas and milk, which have risen dramatically.” In Mexico, according to government estimates, 40 million people live in poverty and 25 million in extreme poverty.

Repression in Latin America has brought immense corporate profits for more than a century. Under NAFTA repression continues and according to many reports has worsened. A 1997 report of a veterans’ delegation to southern Mexico by Bill Motto VFW Post 5888 in Santa Cruz, Calif., cites increased U.S. involvement in Mexico’s militarization and the repression of Mexico’s poor and indigenous. The VFW post adopted a resolution calling for an end to all U.S. military and security assistance to Mexico, and supporting genuine democratization and self-determination for the people of Mexico. The report charged that the “vast majority of equipment, used by the Mexican military and the various security forces of police and paramilitary units, is made and supplied by the United States. One could argue that the only thing Mexican about the Mexican army and security forces is the soldier/policeman himself.” The “war on drugs” has been the pretext.

Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, 19 million Mexican workers and farmers fell into poverty, and some 10 million came to the U.S. in search of work. If, instead, an agreement was reached that lifted the 19 million out of poverty, there would be very few willing to risk life and limb to migrate. Those immigrants who are now working in the U.S. — and their families — should be given a path to citizenship, and NAFTA should be replaced by a fair trade policy.

Lou Incognito is a retiree and social justice activist in Philadelphia.