Washington Policies Drive Migrants North
The immigration experience is not for the faint of heart. Young men and women, from Mexico and further South make the often painful decision to leave their families with a strong possibility that they won't see each other again for years. If a mother or father dies, if a brother gets married, if a sister gives birth, there's no opportunity to share the experience with other family members.
Just looking at migration from Latin America, the cost of crossing the border has skyrocketed in recent years - $2,500 for Mexicans and as much as $20,000 for South Americans. This means assuming a substantial debt, a kind of indentured servitude very similar to slavery. Even after spending these princely sums, the border crossing is dangerous. On average, someone dies every day in the attempt, usually of heat exhaustion or dehydration. We hear that young women often take birth control pills before leaving in the expectation that they will be raped during the journey. And when migrant workers finally arrive in the US, they live under constant fear of deportation. Those that find work end up with below minimum wage jobs and are the target of fraud, unfair work practices and abuse.
So if the process is so difficult and the results are so unrewarding, why do undocumented workers come to the US? Because they have no choice - the very survival of families back home depends on the income from undocumented workers in the US. And when it comes down to questions of survival, nearly any loving, responsible family member would make the same sacrifices and the same decisions.
Why aren't there options South of the border? Much of the problem stems from policies implemented in Washington that directly impact people throughout the South. The majority of undocumented workers come from Mexico, and the relationship between policies devised in DC and the decisions by Mexicans to migrate is very clear.
When Mexico experienced debt crises in 1982 and 1994, two different US administrations developed "rescue" packages worth billions of dollars. Rather than allowing investors to take the hit for their bad investment decisions, the debt was socialized, a form of corporate welfare dictated by the US Treasury Department. Private investors and US bankers got their money and the Mexican ruling class escaped virtually unscathed, while millions of Mexican workers will pay the bill for generations to come. About a quarter of Mexico's federal budget each year goes to debt payments, leaving no funds for investments to create jobs. And the interest rates are double or triple what the US pays for international loans.
Equally important, the debt crisis essentially gave control of Mexico's major economic decisions to the US Treasury Department via a series of Structural Adjustment Programs negotiated with the International Monetary Fund and bilateral agreements negotiated directly with the US. Structural Adjustment turned Mexico into an export platform. Corporations make use of cheap labor and lax environmental regulations to produce for the US market. Today about one-third of everything produced in Mexico is exported, and 90% goes to the US market. Most of the major producers are US-owned firms who also send profits back home, leaving little income for investment. Equally important, export-oriented industries don't have the internal multiplier effect that production for internal consumption affords. Since the goods that are produced in Mexico aren't consumed in Mexico, the consumer motor that drives the US economy is absent. Production for export at these levels deforms the economy, leaving it on a constant treadmill, producing for export to earn dollars to pay off the international debt, while leaving the economy in a constant state of low growth as profits and debt payments are quickly sent north of the border.
NAFTA also has a decisively negative impact in Mexico, driving nearly three million farmers off their lands.
Corn is the most important crop in Mexico. About 18 million people depend largely on corn production for their survival, and corn provides about half of the caloric intake of a typical campesino diet. When NAFTA forced Mexico to lower protective tariffs and flooded Mexico with US grown corn (all agricultural tariffs are schedule to end in 2009), and the price of corn dropped drastically. Small farmers were no longer able to compete. Before NAFTA, these same farmers sold excess production in local markets, providing their only source of cash income for medicines, tools, and school supplies -- anything they couldn't produce themselves.
NAFTA forced millions of Mexican farmers to abandon their fields and look for another source of income as migrant workers. The export sector was supposed to provide these jobs, but these jobs are poorly paid (averaging around a dollar an hour), difficult, and, most importantly, insufficient to cover the demand. Now as a direct effect of NAFTA they have to look elsewhere for that income, and immigration is the only available alternative.
Comprehensive immigration reform requires a comprehensive look at the causes of immigration.
Obviously the Mexican government is not without blame and the Mexican people need to hold their government accountable for its economic decisions, but until Washington accepts its role in causing undocumented immigration and re-thinks NAFTA and its other so called "free trade" agreements, there is little chance for anything but band-aid policies that will not fix the problem and migration to the US will only increase.
(Mexico-US Solidarity Network editorial submitted to Chicago Tribume, 5/5/06. We encourage you to use this editorial or to submit simular one to your local editorial page.)