Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The key to immigration reform: addressing its root causes (Part I)

Over the past two years, over 900 migrants have perished making the hazardous journey through the desert to make new lives in "el Norte." Some were small coffee growers from Vera Cruz, chicken farmers from Jalisco, or vegetable growers from Guadalajara. Others were indigenous subsistence farmers from the Chiapas highlands no longer able to eek out a living. Still others were Guatemalan migrant workers who could not find work on either side of Mexico's border and jumped on El Tren de Muerte (The Death Train) in Tapachula for the first leg of their journey, boarding alongside Salvadorans escaping decades of political upheaval and Hondurans escaping crushing poverty.

Between 6 and 7 million people have taken the arduous journey north, many within the last ten years, most of them coming from poor agriultural areas that are no longer able to support their growing populations. Yet, with all the debate about reforming US immigration policy and securing the borders, we have not heard one solid proposal to address the root causes of this massive migration. The question of why so many must leave their homes and families to simply survive is rarely mentioned, but remains the missing piece in the comprehensive immigration reform puzzle.

tags: , , ,

Most people recognize that the economic conditions in Central and South America drive much of the current migration. It's widely acknowledged that most sender nations suffer from economic inequities that leave the vast majority of their populations living in abject poverty while a small elite ruling class controls most of the wealth. In Mexico for instance, nearly half of its 106 million people live in poverty, yet it has more billionaires than Switzerland. But what has fostered these inequities and in fact exacerbated them over the last ten or fifteen is not widely discussed. It is this deeper understanding of the complexities of the issue that seem to be absent from much of the debate.

From the immigration hawks we hear that a mix of government corruption and an inability or unwillingness on the part of people from these countries to effect change has led to the problems in this region. Lou Dobbs tells us that a greedy Mexican government intentionally ships its poor here to avoid upheaval. Others admonish the undocumented migrants living in the US, suggesting they return home and work to fix their own countries rather than look for acceptance here.

Those supporting comprehensive reform skirt around the issue of causation, looking instead for methods to regulate and accommodate this increasing flow of migrants. Looking to change or shuffle quotas and grant temporary worker status to a large percentage of newly arriving migrants, their plan is also flawed and incomplete. It doesn't address the reasons this migration is taking place.

No plan, be it walls and armed guards every 50 yards, or quota changes and guest workers can ever work without first looking at why the migration is taking place and figuring out what can be done, at least in this hemisphere, to curtail the poverty, political upheaval and social injustice that foster mass migration. To try to reform immigration without addressing its root causes is like trying to fix a broken pipe without turning off the water.

Certainly, one of the greatest factors in the social and economic changes that have taken place in much of Latin America in recent decades can be directly traced to the proliferation of free trade agreements coupled with an embracing of a Reaganesque philosophy of laissez faire economics and deregulation by many Latin leaders.

No country has embraced the idea of free trade and deregulation more than Mexico. Beginning in 1987 with its membership of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Mexico has signed more free trade agreements than any other country in the world. In 1994, it joined NAFTA and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since then there have been very few trade agreements Mexico has not been part of. These agreements in general and NAFTA in particular, while helping certain segments of Mexico's economy, have had devastating effects on the rural poor, the group that makes up the bulk of the current economic migrants arriving each year in the US.

Another factor that has driven migration has been political and social instability. Fifteen years after the end of its civil war, El Salvador sends more people per capita to the US than any other country. One third of its population currently lives outside its borders, the majority of them in the U.S. and its economy is reliant on the remittances they send back. After decades of US intervention and meddling in its internal affairs, the peace accords that ended years of violence have failed to truly bring peace, leaving hundreds to flee each day to find security, both personal and economic.

The US cannot solve all the worlds problems and the leadership in these countries must shoulder much of the responsibilty for the current situation, but in many cases the problems in Latin America continue to be very much of our own making. Our policies, both economic and diplomatic, have helped to both foster and perpetuate many of the conditions that have lead to the massive migration going on today. From 600,000 Latin American coffee farmers losing their land and their livelihoods over the past five years as a result of a pricing crisis, to the loss of 2 million agricultural jobs in Mexico between 1993 and 2003, the trade policies favored by the US and embraced by our trading partners have had devastating effects on the poor and working classes on both sides of the border. There is very little difference between the US autoworker who has lost his job to outsourcing and the Mexican maquiladora worker who now finds his job sent to China.

If we are to truly reform our immigration policies we must start to look at these economic and political realities and start to craft policy that addresses these root causes of migration. We must start to see the interconnection between the effects of free trade policies on our own economy and the economy of sender nations and we must examine how our foreign policy has fostered economic inequality and political upheaval throughout the region. Until we address these problems no true immigration reform can be enacted.

Part II: NAFTA and its effects on Mexico's economy


Anonymous said...

Still letting the Mexican government off the hook. Let Carlos Slim and the rest of the billionaires continue to reck it in. It's not their fault. Nor is it Vicente Fox's, or Salinas de Gotari's or Echevarria's.

Duke1676 said...

Yes, it's true that the economic elites in Mexico have gamed the system to maintain power and wealth.


Until people start to make the conection between this story:

Mexico's well-heeled get richer

Mexico's rich and powerful got even more rich and powerful during the six-year term of outgoing President Vicente Fox.

That's the conclusion of a World Bank study released this week that said Mexico's business elite and powerful public-sector unions were a major drag on the nation's economy.

The net worth of Mexico's billionaires soared, from just over 4 percent of gross domestic product in 2000 to about 6 percent in 2006, according to the study. Strong earnings at big corporations have driven the stock market to repeated highs.

But those benefits haven't been widely shared. The concentration of economic power in few hands has saddled Mexican consumers with high prices, exacerbated income inequality and retarded economic growth.

Over the past six years, Mexico's gross domestic product has expanded only about 2.3 percent a year on average. The nation has created less than a quarter of the 1 million net new jobs it needs annually just to keep up with growth in the working population.

Attacking the nation's monopolies and bringing competition to important sectors of Mexico's economy are crucial for the nation to raise living standards, generate employment and compete in a global economy, said economist Luis Felipe Lopez-Calva, one of the study's authors

And this one:

The Great Wealth Transfer,Paul Krugman

The reason most Americans think the economy is fair to poor is simple: For most Americans, it really is fair to poor. Wages have failed to keep up with rising prices. Even in 2005, a year in which the economy grew quite fast, the income of most non-elderly families lagged behind inflation. The number of Americans in poverty has risen even in the face of an official economic recovery, as has the number of Americans without health insurance. Most Americans are little, if any, better off than they were last year and definitely worse off than they were in 2000.

But how is this possible? The economic pie is getting bigger -- how can it be true that most Americans are getting smaller slices? The answer, of course, is that a few people are getting much, much bigger slices. Although wages have stagnated since Bush took office, corporate profits have doubled. The gap between the nation's CEOs and average workers is now ten times greater than it was a generation ago. And while Bush's tax cuts shaved only a few hundred dollars off the tax bills of most Americans, they saved the richest one percent more than $44,000 on average. In fact, once all of Bush's tax cuts take effect, it is estimated that those with incomes of more than $200,000 a year -- the richest five percent of the population -- will pocket almost half of the money. Those who make less than $75,000 a year -- eighty percent of America -- will receive barely a quarter of the cuts. In the Bush era, economic inequality is on the rise.

Rising inequality isn't new. The gap between rich and poor started growing before Ronald Reagan took office, and it continued to widen through the Clinton years. But what is happening under Bush is something entirely unprecedented: For the first time in our history, so much growth is being siphoned off to a small, wealthy minority that most Americans are failing to gain ground even during a time of economic growth -- and they know it.

We will get nowhere in this debate. The connections between the elite classes in both countries that set the agenda and control the wealth are far greater than the loyalties that bind them to their geographic homes. Just check to see how many of those members of Mexico's ruling classes went to school, sit on boards, and have economic and social ties to their counterparts here in the US. The class system that is so obvious in Latin America exists here also….we just elect our "skull and bones" alumni to higher office…therer they just assume power through coupes and corruption…. But their free trade and economic policies are the same , and have the same results.

Anonymous said...

Good post, duke. Certainly, it is absurd and tyrannical for capital to be crossing borders and exploiting internationally while labor is restricted and people are constrained from trying to find work. It is definitely ridiculous to even begin to talk about immigration without reference to imperialism and neoliberal economics. I think, those of us opposing the anti-immigration, racism, xenophobia movement in this country should drop the attitude that "we also want to stop immigrants, but let's look at x that drives them" and instead join forces with our immigrant brothers and sisters and stand up against neoliberalism and the border and for the right of working people to migrate to this country whenever they need to.