Americans Are Mostly Blind to Mexican Workers’ Plight. Will Ariz. Law Trigger Change?

Roger Bybee

More than 1,000 opponents of Arizona's new immigration enforcement law protest outside the state capitol building on April 25, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Arizona’s new law requiring police to determine the status of any suspected illegal immigrants” has triggered a massive reaction by the Latino movement and its allies, including Americans deeply troubled by the prospect of legalized racial profiling and pervasive police intrusion.

The stunning step, led by Arizona Republicans, will undoubtedly produce huge turnouts for the May 1 immigrant rights rallies across the nation as the new threat to anyone with a dark complexion reverberates across the nation.

It also carries the potential of activating at least one major section of the Democratic base, thus far de-energized and disappointed by the Obama Administration’s timidity in tackling job creation and other critical needs. There has been tremendous disappointment in terms of what President Obama promised during his presidential campaign,” says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of Voces de La Frontera (Voices of the Border) in Milwaukee and the mastermind behind local May 1 rallies that have consistently drawn some 75,000 people for immigrants’ rights since 2006.

He had a strong immigration platform and we felt there would be, if not reform, at least relief,” Neumann-Ortiz added.

The combination of an energized Latino movement visible on May 1 and the threat of more Arizona-style legislation by reactionary state legislatures will certainly heighten the urgency for action by Obama.


But there are at least two major factors that will make it hard for Obama to propose meaningful legislation that would end the insecurity of Mexican immigrants living and working in the U.S., establish legal rights for undocumented workers subject to employer exploitation, and improve conditions in Mexico so that its people do not have to migrate to the US.

First, the fact remains that U.S. elites are still unwilling to recognize the utter catastrophe that NAFTA has represented for working people on both sides of the border. In particular, they are seemingly unconcerned about repairing the social and economic damage caused to Mexico by NAFTA. To the extent Corporate America is interested in immigration, it is only to assure a supply of low-wage labor.

Second, demagogues like Patrick Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, while accurately depicting the devastation caused on the U.S. side of the border to discarded workers and abandoned industrial communites by corporations seeking low-wage labor, have helped to blind many Americans to the suffering on the Mexican side, which has fueled immigration. 

While Buchanan and Dobbs issued comparatively mild criticism of Corporate America, their incessant demonization of Mexican immigrants for stealing American jobs and allegedly committing a host of other evils has taken root among wide sectors of white America.

Balanced development of Mexico’s resources should have been the goal of a bilateral agreement with the U.S.; instead George Bush I and Bill Clinton decided to annex Mexico as a low-wage industrial suburb and a market for U.S. government-subsidized agriculture and retailers like Wal-Mart. 

Stemming the flow of economic refugees from Mexico will require large-scale assistance to enable Mexicans to build a modern infrastructure of roads, mass transport, electricity lines, clean water, and computer access. But although they eagerly exploit Mexicans with low wages and often humiliating conditions, U.S. firms have been unwilling to pay even minimal taxes. NAFTA has thus generated neither a middle-class consumer market nor improvements in Mexico’s impoverished infrastructure.

The promised uplift in the lives of Mexicans has never materialized. Gustavo Elizondo, former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, whose city is crammed with U.S.-owned low-wage plants (not to mention horrific levels of violence), expressed Mexico’s plight clearly:

We have no way to provide water, sewage, and sanitation workers. Every year, we get poorer and poorer even though we create more and more wealth.

Falling industrial wages, peasants forced off the land, small businesses liquidated, growing poverty: these are direct consequences of NAFTA. This harsh suffering explains why so many desperate Mexicans – lured to the border area in the false hope that they could find decent wages and dignity in the U.S.-owned maquiladoras” (factories along the border) – are willing to risk their lives to cross the border to provide for their families.

There were 2.5 million Mexican illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 1995; roughly 8 million have crossed the border since then. In 2005, some 400 desperate Mexicans died trying to enter the U.S.


NAFTA failed to curb illegal immigration precisely because it was never designed as a genuine development program crafted to promote rising living standards, healthcare, environmental cleanup, and worker rights in Mexico. That’s because NAFTA was never more than a formula for government-sanctioned corporate plunder benefiting elites on both sides of the border.

The trade agreement allowed capital to flow freely across the border to low-wage factories and Wal-mart-type retailers, but the same standard of free access would be denied to Mexican workers.

Public opposition in the U.S. to NAFTA-style trade agreements outweighs support by a 4 to 1 margin, according to a January Pew Research poll. No wonder: roughly 1 million jobs have been lost due to NAFTA, the Economic Policy Institute reports. Poll after poll shows similarly overwhelming margins, with even college-educated and Republican voters increasing turning against free trade.”

But as long as America’s corporate and political elites are unwilling to offer Mexico anything but military aid, Mexico’s problems will fester. Similarly, thanks to the likes of Buchanan and Dobbs, many Americans citizens seem inclined to view Mexican immirants as competitors for scarce jobs rather than fellow victims of transnational corporations.

Obviously, the fight for immigrants’ rights and sensible immigration policies will be arduous in today’s poisonous political climate. But perhaps Arizona’s offensive new law will make many struggling Americans realize that illegal immigrants are not the enemy, but the result of economic policies that hurt all working people — whether they are Mexican or American citizens.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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