Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Immigration Debate

Lost in the chilling rhetoric about building walls between Mexico and the U.S. (or, better said, between Mexico and land that the U.S. stole from Mexico) and forbidding social service agencies from assisting "illegal aliens" is the fact that if there is indeed a "crisis" of undocumented immigrants, then much of the blame can be squarely placed at the feet of the U.S. government.

As a recent op-ed in the Washington Post seeks an explanation for their increasing numbers:
Why? It's not because we've let down our guard at the border; to the contrary, the border is more militarized now than it's ever been. The answer is actually simpler than that. In large part, it's NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold, of course, as a boon to the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico -- guaranteed both to raise incomes and lower prices, however improbably, throughout the continent. Bipartisan elites promised that it would stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, too. "There will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home," said President Bill Clinton as he was building support for the measure in the spring of 1993.

But NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, could not have been more precisely crafted to increase immigration -- chiefly because of its devastating effect on Mexican agriculture. As liberal economist Jeff Faux points out in "The Global Class War," his just-published indictment of the actual workings of the new economy, Mexico had been home to a poor agrarian sector for generations, which the government helped sustain through price supports on corn and beans. NAFTA, though, put those farmers in direct competition with incomparably more efficient U.S. agribusinesses. It proved to be no contest: From 1993 through 2002, at least 2 million Mexican farmers were driven off their land.

The experience of Mexican industrial workers under NAFTA hasn't been a whole lot better. With the passage of NAFTA, the maquiladoras on the border boomed. But the raison d'etre for these factories was to produce exports at the lowest wages possible, and with the Mexican government determined to keep its workers from unionizing, the NAFTA boom for Mexican workers never materialized. In the pre-NAFTA days of 1975, Faux documents, Mexican wages came to 23 percent of U.S. wages; in 1993-94, just before NAFTA, they amounted to 15 percent; and by 2002 they had sunk to a mere 12 percent.

The official Mexican poverty rate rose from 45.6 percent in 1994 to 50.3 percent in 2000.

[Meyerson, Harold. NAFTA and Nativism." Washington Post, 8 February 2006]

Also lost in media commentary (commentary, in this instance, being used in a generous sense) is the notion that Mexicans don't inherently deserve to live in poverty. As human beings, alongside their mighty gringo neighbors to the north, they are the same, and deserve the same rights, standards of living, and opportunities. Those who argue that immigration to the U.S. should be reduced because it lowers living standards are in effect saying the opposite: that for being born on the wrong side of a border that is the product of imperialist aggression, Mexicans - and all the other backwards, brown-skinned peoples - are to be caged into what's left of their homeland, trapped into eternal poverty so that the "developed" countries may continue in their enlightened development.


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