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
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
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
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.)