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NAFTA, Deportations, and Mexican Farm Laborers


It really disgusts me that a lot of Americans are so ignorant about even their neighboring nations that they see nothing but grievances and scary brown people and are completely unable to make the connections between the policies they support, like exporting farm products, and why these people come to the United States in the first place. So I wrote a piece for The New Republic about it. An excerpt:

NAFTA’s impact on all three parties to the treaty is complicated, but it was horrible for Mexican farmers, driving them over the border into the United States. Immigration historians have long noted that there are push-and-pull factors that send migrants to the U.S. and other nations, and the biggest push factor for these farmers was that they simply could not survive on their farms any longer. NAFTA rules facilitating land privatization allowed American agricultural companies to create U.S.-style agribusiness operations in Mexico. The U.S. then pulled these people across the border because of the availability of low-wage jobs here.

Even more important is the story of Mexican corn. Maize was first domesticated in what is today Mexico, spreading across the Americas as the core staple crop of thousands of indigenous civilizations. It remains the core food staple of Mexicans. NAFTA flooded the Mexican market with American corn, driving Mexican farmers using pre-industrial methods out of the market. It was cheaper to import the American corn—or at least it was before corn gained other industrial applications.

I was in Mexico in January 2007 when formerly cheap American corn became expensive after American agribusiness began using it to make ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, and other industrial products. Tortilla prices tripled in some parts of Mexico in 2006. The average Mexican family consumes one kilogram of tortillas a day. So when prices rose to as high as $1.81 for that kilogram in a nation with a minimum wage of $4.60 a day, the protests in Mexico created a brief but major political crisis. It was not only a crisis of the food supply, but a crisis of national identity. If Mexico could not feed itself on its national crop, what did that mean for the security of the nation and Mexico’s place in the global economy? This is NAFTA’s legacy as much as unemployed steel workers in the United States.

Moreover, because Americans don’t understand why Mexicans and other immigrants are coming to their nation, they can’t empathize with the tremendous personal cost immigration has on migrants and their families. In 2014, I was at the annual fiesta in a town in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. This largely indigenous area of poor farmers has provided a great deal of the immigration to the United States over the past two decades, especially to Oregon, California, and New York’s Hudson Valley. I was having lunch with an older couple and their son, who was a legal immigrant to the United States. That son was the only child of this older couple able to make it back to the fiesta. Everyone else was in the United States, undocumented and desperately trying to make a living.

While America offers economic opportunities, the social cost of migration is incredibly sad. A whole generation of Mexicans in many communities are separated from their children, growing old alone, unable to reunite because the children fear not getting back across the border to work. This is also NAFTA’s legacy, made worse by American farm-states livid about Latino immigration.

None of this is to minimize the outrage NAFTA has created in American industrial communities. It is a major part of America’s contemporary political crisis. But Mexicans feel the same way about NAFTA. A 2016 poll showed that only 20 percent of Mexicans believed the agreement was good for them, while more than two-thirds believed the U.S had benefited from NAFTA. What has really happened is that free trade agreements have benefitted the elite in all nations while leaving everyday citizens feeling unmoored. A renegotiated NAFTA that would protect American industrial work combined with a border wall and aggressive deportations of migrants is not a reasonable response to globalization. Instead, it creates a trade system by which Americans reap all the benefits while bottling up all the problems that system causes south of the border. If history is any indication, that would have long-term negative consequences for both the United States and Mexico.

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