Don’t Punish the Dreamers—Punish the Corporations Driving Forced Migration

David Bacon

On September 5, 2,000 people demonstrated in front of San Francisco's Federal Building, blocking intersections and marching through the streets, to protest the announcement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that the Trump administration will repeal the DACA order protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation. (David Bacon)

The dream­ers,” young recip­i­ents of the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) pro­gram — are the true chil­dren of the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA). More than any­one, they have paid the price for the agree­ment. Yet they are the ones pun­ished by the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, as it takes away their legal sta­tus, abil­i­ty to work and right to live in this coun­try with­out fear of arrest or depor­ta­tion. At the same time, those respon­si­ble for the fact they grew up in the Unit­ed States walk away unpun­ished — and even bet­ter off.

I’m not talk­ing about their par­ents. It’s com­mon for lib­er­al politi­cians — and even Trump him­self, on occa­sion — to say these young peo­ple should­n’t be pun­ished for the crimes” of their par­ents, who brought their chil­dren with them when they crossed the bor­der with­out papers. But par­ents aren’t crim­i­nals any more than their chil­dren are. They chose sur­vival over hunger, and sought to keep their fam­i­lies togeth­er and give them a future.

The per­pe­tra­tors of the crime” are those who wrote the trade treaties and the eco­nom­ic reforms that made forced migra­tion the only means for fam­i­lies to sur­vive. The crime” was NAFTA. 

In a just world, U.S. trade nego­tia­tors would rewrite the treaty to repair the dam­age done to com­mu­ni­ties on both sides of the bor­der, espe­cial­ly in Mex­i­co. They would ensure that those forced to migrate — dream­ers and oth­er immi­grants — have legal res­i­dence where they now live. They would change the rules of the rela­tion­ship between the Unit­ed States and Mex­i­co, so that the income and lives of work­ing peo­ple and the poor aren’t sac­ri­ficed to pro­duce prof­it oppor­tu­ni­ties for big cor­po­ra­tions. And their new agree­ment would pun­ish those cor­po­ra­tions respon­si­ble for the vast increase in pover­ty fol­low­ing NAF­TA’s passage.

While the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and a Repub­li­can Con­gress are cer­tain­ly not going to nego­ti­ate any changes like these, the first step in mak­ing change pos­si­ble is telling the truth.Nowhere is this more impor­tant than in rela­tion to NAF­TA and immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy. It’s impos­si­ble to under­stand the out­ra­geous injus­tice of deport­ing the dream­ers with­out acknowl­edg­ing the rea­sons why they live in the Unit­ed States to begin with.

The treaty had an enor­mous impact on Mex­i­co, pro­duc­ing a wave of forced migra­tion of mil­lions of peo­ple. The World Bank in 2005 found that the extreme rur­al pover­ty rate of 35 per­cent from 1992 to 1994, pri­or to NAF­TA, jumped to 55 per­cent from 1996 to 1998, after NAF­TA took effect. By 2010, 53 mil­lion Mex­i­cans were liv­ing in pover­ty, and about 20 per­cent live in extreme pover­ty, almost all in rur­al areas. 

Peo­ple were migrat­ing from Mex­i­co to the Unit­ed States long before NAF­TA, but the treaty put migra­tion on steroids. In 1990, 4.4 mil­lion Mex­i­can migrants had come to the Unit­ed States. A decade lat­er, that pop­u­la­tion more than dou­bled to 9.75 mil­lion, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 mil­lion. About 9 per­cent of all Mex­i­cans now live in the Unit­ed States. About 5.7 mil­lion were able to get some kind of visa, but anoth­er 7 mil­lion couldn’t.

In the first year of NAF­TA, one mil­lion Mex­i­cans lost their jobs, by the government’s count.Jeff Faux, found­ing direc­tor of the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, told In These Times that the peso crash of Decem­ber, 1994, was direct­ly con­nect­ed to NAFTA.”

The treaty then forced yel­low corn grown by Mex­i­can farm­ers with­out sub­si­dies to com­pete in Mexico’s own mar­ket with corn from huge U.S. pro­duc­ers, sub­si­dized by the U.S. farm bill. Corn imports rose from around 2 mil­lion to more than 10 mil­lion tons from 1992 to 2008. Mex­i­co import­ed 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, and by 2010, this num­ber jumped to 811, 000 tons. As a result, pork prices dropped 56 per­cent, and Mex­i­co lost over 120,000 jobs in pork production. 

NAF­TA pro­hib­it­ed price sup­ports, with­out which hun­dreds of thou­sands of small farm­ers found it impos­si­ble to sell corn or oth­er farm prod­ucts for what it cost to pro­duce them. The CONA­SUPO sys­tem — in which the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment bought corn at sub­si­dized prices, turned it into tor­tillas and sold them in state-fran­chised gro­cery stores at sub­si­dized low prices — was abol­ished. The price of corn to farm­ers fell by 66 per­cent, and the price of tor­tillas jumped by 279 per­cent in NAF­TA’s first decade.

In Dreams Deport­ed, pub­lished by the UCLA Labor Cen­ter, dream­ers describe their mem­o­ries of forced migra­tion, retold in their fam­i­lies. Vick­y’s fam­i­ly in Mex­i­co was too poor to pay for her mother’s med­ica­tion and Vicky could­n’t find a job to sup­port her par­ents.” Rena­ta Teodoro remem­bers, My father had been work­ing in the Unit­ed States for many years, and we sur­vived on the mon­ey he sent us.”

Rufi­no Dominguez, for­mer direc­tor of the Oax­a­can Insti­tute for Atten­tion to Migrants, said in 2014, NAF­TA forced the price of corn so low that it’s not eco­nom­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble to plant a crop any­more. We come to the U.S. to work because we can’t get a price for our prod­uct at home. There’s no alter­na­tive.” About 2.5 mil­lion rur­al Mex­i­can farm­ers and farm­work­ers were dri­ven out of work or off their land.

Urban work­ers felt NAF­TA’s impact as well. The aver­age Mex­i­can wage was 23 per­cent of the U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing wage in 1975. By 2002, it was less than an eighth. In the 20 years after NAF­TA went into effect, the buy­ing pow­er of Mex­i­can wages dropped, and the min­i­mum wage fell by 24 per­cent. A U.S. autowork­er earns $21.50 an hour, and a Mex­i­can autowork­er $3. A gal­lon of milk costs more in Mex­i­co than it does in the Unit­ed States. It takes a Mex­i­can autowork­er over an hour’s work to buy a pound of ham­burg­er, while a work­er in Detroit can buy it after 10 min­utes. But Mex­i­can work­ers in the GM plant mak­ing the Son­ic, Sil­ver­a­do, and Sier­ra pro­duce the same num­ber of cars per hour that the work­ers do in U.S. plants. The dif­fer­ence means prof­it for GM, pover­ty for Mex­i­can work­ers and the migra­tion of those who can’t survive.

Con­gress was warned that NAF­TA might increase pover­ty and fuel migra­tion. When the deal passed the Immi­gra­tion Reform and Con­trol Act (IRCA) in 1986, Con­gress set up a Com­mis­sion for the Study of Inter­na­tion­al Migra­tion and Coop­er­a­tive Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment to study immi­gra­tion’s caus­es. Its 1990 report rec­om­mends nego­ti­at­ing a free trade agree­ment between the Unit­ed States, Mex­i­co and Cana­da. But it cau­tioned, It takes many years — even gen­er­a­tions — for sus­tained growth to achieve the desired effect.” Mean­while, the study warned of years of tran­si­tion­al costs in human suf­fer­ing.” Nev­er­the­less, the nego­ti­a­tions that led to NAF­TA start­ed with­in months.

In a state­ment giv­ing its cur­rent posi­tion on the trade talks, the AFL-CIO argued that all work­ers, regard­less of sec­tor, have the right to receive wages suf­fi­cient for them to afford … a decent stan­dard of liv­ing,” and to pro­hib­it export of prod­ucts made by com­pa­nies pay­ing less. Pro­gres­sive Mex­i­can unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions sup­port this prin­ci­ple, because it would give work­ers and farm­ers a future at home, where they live.

Gas­par Rivera-Sal­ga­do, a leader of the Bina­tion­al Front of Indige­nous Orga­ni­za­tions, which fights for immi­grants’ rights in the Unit­ed States, told In These Times, We need the abil­i­ty to stay home with jobs and incomes that can sup­port fam­i­lies — the right to not migrate.” But with­out chang­ing U.S. trade pol­i­cy and end­ing pro-cor­po­rate eco­nom­ic reforms, mil­lions of dis­placed peo­ple will con­tin­ue to migrate, no mat­ter how many walls are built on the bor­der. If peo­ple bring their chil­dren with them, that’s no more than any of us would do to avoid the breakup of our families.

Defend­ing the dream­ers and the rights of all migrants in the Unit­ed States is inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with chang­ing the poli­cies that uproot com­mu­ni­ties and force fam­i­lies into the dan­ger­ous jour­ney through the desert and across this coun­try’s south­ern bor­der. Tear­ing down the wall instead of build­ing a new one, and clos­ing the deten­tion cen­ters instead of fill­ing them with dream­ers, is as much a part of rene­go­ti­at­ing NAF­TA as ensur­ing that Archer Daniels Mid­land and Cargill nev­er again dri­ve farm­ers off their land, or forc­ing Gen­er­al Motors to pay a wage that won’t send work­ers home to hun­gry families. 

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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