Mexican workers on both sides of border pay the cost of immigration crackdown
Mexican citizens climb the border fence to take pictures of themselves on top of the structure, in Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

The crackdown on immigration at the southern border and the increase in deportations are taking a toll on Mexican workers in the United States and Mexico. While strict immigration policy is not a new phenomenon, Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies and incendiary rhetoric exacerbate the situation.

With support from the conservative media, Trump has framed immigration as a “crisis” along the southern border. Warnings that hordes of criminals, rapists, gangbangers, and drug dealers from Mexico and Central America are invading the United States, from both Trump and conservative pundits, encourage people to express their xenophobic or nativist tendencies openly. Trump’s portrayal of undocumented Mexican immigrants as violent criminals defines them as a national security threat, and that has inspired some to take matters into their own hands to weed-out “enemies of the state.”

Without a doubt, Trump’s tirades have contributed to the increase in hate crimes. Mexican immigrants of all ages have fallen victim to racially motivated crimes. Many have been run out of towns by locals who deliberately made their lives insufferable. Some towns have enacted laws outlawing landowners to rent to people unable to prove their status. Businesses that hire workers illegally in the United States are subject to fines, leading many of them to screen people more thoroughly. Years ago, business owners could get away with hiring an individual without verifying their status. Today, the Department of Homeland Security is taking measures to ensure businesses and companies use E-Verify to check whether an individual can legally work in the United States.

All of this creates major challenges for undocumented Mexican workers in the United States, who must navigate in this hostile environment, but it also affects their families in Mexico who depend the money workers send home. Remittances hit a record high of $33 billion in 2018, a 10.5% increase compared to 2017. But those numbers are likely to fall in 2019, as the crackdown on the border intensifies and deportations grow. As a result, millions of families in Mexico will struggle to remain economically solvent in an economy where the urban working class earns just over $5 a day.

Deportation creates additional challenges for those who have lived in the United States for decades and established roots. After years of not being able to move freely across the border, immigrants’ connection to Mexico diminishes, and this presents significant social problems for the Mexican worker on top of financial ones. Many have grown accustomed to their way of life in the United States. Deportees undergo a culture shock and must grapple with unfamiliar laws, norms, and regulations. Many suffer from depression and worry that they’ve disappointed their families. As these feelings increase, so does their desperation to return to the United States—even as that option becomes less accessible.

Crossing the border has become more dangerous and more expensive. The militarization of the border has contributed to that, but it is not the only factor. Gang violence, kidnappings, heat exhaustion, extortion, and rape are just some of the problems migrants are likely to encounter as they move through Mexico and at the southern border.

In the 1970s, it cost a few hundred dollars to hire a “coyote” (human trafficker) to smuggle you across the border. Toda,y the fees range between $3,000 and $6,500, sometimes more. Migrants also have to contend with exploitation, threats of violence, and extortion by gangs and drug cartels that have capitalized on the vulnerability of migrants and amassed tremendous wealth from ransoms or forcing them work as drug mules.

Trump’s latest gambit is to place tariffs on Mexican products in order to punish Mexico for not doing enough to clamp down on the flow of immigrants through the country. The United States is Mexico’s third largest trade partner, and tariffs will surely hurt the Mexican economy.

Several Republican Party members and economic advisors have warned Trump against enacting the tariffs. Why? First, Mexico lacks the infrastructure and money to adequately deal with the flow of immigrants from Central America through the country. Second, the tariffs will probably cause the Mexican peso to drop (currently $1 U.S. dollar = $19.55 pesos) and prices to rise, and this would likely increase the number of people trying to get across the border.

Nevertheless, Trump tweeted just a few days ago that “Mexico makes a FORTUNE from the U.S., have for decades, they can easily fix this problem.” This is patently false. For the past 18 years, Mexico has been suffering a severe economic downturn, which has been exacerbated by increased drug-related violence and political instability. Mexico’s unemployment has remained at a steady 4%, but this is cold comfort for the millions of working-class Mexicans who live in poverty. That seemingly low rate does not reflect the decline in wages and the number of hours a laborer must work to earn a decent living. The circumstances are even bleaker in rural areas of Mexico, where the majority of undocumented immigrants call home.

The U.S. economy will also suffer. While the Mexican workers making automobile parts exported to the United States may lose their jobs, American consumers will also pay more to buy cars, since the 5% tariff increase on will be passed on to them. Of course, the U.S. economy is already suffering from Trump’s hardline anti-immigration laws. For example, farmers have long relied on immigrant workers who day in and day out perform the backbreaking job of harvesting produce. But tighter border security, deportations, and racism are causing those workers to leave—or making it harder for them to cross the border. Without Mexican workers, the fruits and vegetables Americans consume are rotting on the ground. Consumers will likely pay more in the grocery store, and farmers will face series financial consequences.

Aside from ending the racist hyperbole about immigration, what should be done? We need to provide the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States with a path to citizenship. That’s what Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro proposed in his immigration reform plan, announced last month. Of course, Castro is not the first to support a path to citizenship. Democrats have mulled over the idea for years, yet have made little headway. Conservatives, on the other hand, have regularly undercut any legislation that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants, claiming that this rewards criminals.

But providing a path to citizenship is humane and necessary to protect a large group of workers who contribute extensively to our society. They will no longer have to live under the constant threat of deportation. Castro also proposed a “Marshal Plan for Central America to help deter potential asylum seekers” In theory, this sounds like a good plan, but the history of U.S. economic and political intervention in Central America hasn’t been positive. Moreover, an economic stimulus package won’t solve the problem of gang violence and femicides.

My grandfather, who labored in the peach orchards of Stockton, California, during the Bracero Program, once told me that his greatest regret was not speaking out against injustice for fear of losing his guest worker permit. That restriction would theoretically not exist anymore if immigrant workers are offered a path to citizenship. It could also mean a significant victory for the working-class and labor rights. Immigrant workers could help reinvigorate labor unions, fight racism and exploitation without the fear of retribution, and engage in other political and social activities. A path to citizenship could cure several social and political issues and allow both U.S. and Mexican workers to move forward.

This article originally appeared at the Working-Class Perspectives site, hosted by Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.


Fernando Herrera Calderón
Fernando Herrera Calderón

Fernando Herrera Calderón is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa. He specializes in working-class youth culture, political violence, and urban social movements in 20th century Mexico.