Friday, October 26, 2007

Looking to the Root Causes of Migration: NAFTA

Over the last few years, over 1000 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 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.

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 seems 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 plans are also flawed and incomplete. They don't address the reasons this migration is taking place.

But if we are to ever effect meaningful reform of our flawed immigration system we must start to face the tough questions and look for real solutions. We must start to look at causation and how to change the current paradigm.

This video, produced by the Teamsters Union, long-time opponents of NAFTA, looks at one of these root causes of migration.

video link

Admittedly, this Teamster produced video, like everything that comes from the forces at play on the greater Washington stage, presents a picture painted by those with an agenda that doesn't always coincide with the greater concerns of migrants. But with that said, it certainly raises some of the right questions …..questions we need to start to address.


yave said...

I remain unconvinced that NAFTA is a root cause of inter-American migration. It may not have addressed root causes adequately to significantly stem the flow of migration. But calling it a root cause I think misses some important distinctions.

What I saw in this video were politicians speaking to their union constituents. What I would like to see are progressive economists trained in this subject talking about these issues. I would like to see people who have to answer to Mexican voters talking about these issues. What I saw was nativism cloaked in the garb of humanitarian concern. Most of what I heard could easily have come from Lou Dobbs.

Trade is not a zero-sum game. Jobs don’t migrate in the same way that people do. Increased trade, on balance, increases jobs. Yes, we should do more to compensate and retrain those dislocated due to economic changes in a globalized economy. So far efforts along these lines have been seriously deficient. Yes, we should include stronger environmental and labor standards in our trade agreements. Yes, we should work towards political agreements that take into account the interests of Mexicans and other Latin Americans as well as those of U.S. citizens. But the way to do this is not to break down NAFTA. The Teamsters and the restrictionists have no interest in replacing NAFTA with some stronger linkages akin to those in the EU.

Rather than throw up additional barriers between us and Mexico, whether physical or the less tangible kind, I would rather move towards freer movement of labor, goods, and capital patterned on the model of the EU. Isn’t there something liberating about being able to travel from Germany to France, mortal enemies just 60 years ago, without showing a passport? Is Germany any less German or France any less French because of this opening up? Have these countries been made worse off economically as they have integrated? No, they haven’t.

I think NAFTA is the wrong target. But I’m not an economist, and I wish Brad DeLong or Dani Rodrik were here to explain the benefits of trade from a progressive perspective.

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