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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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