Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Globalization, NAFTA and immigration

Immigration and emigration between Mexico and the United States is driven by a complex set of forces. These forces are the result of economic and political policies put in place by the United States and Mexico. One such element is the maquiladora program which essentially expands the borders for U.S. manufacturing concerns deep into Mexico. Under this program, American corporations are allowed to transfer their manufacturing facilities to Mexico and pay pitifully low wages and send the finished goods back to the U.S. market without tariffs or other duties leveled on importers from other countries. In almost all respects this is a losing proposition for Mexico and most critically for Mexican workers.

It is ironic to hear so much nativist cant about the so-called loss of control of our borders when American companies enjoy the benefits of an expanded economic zone in Mexico without the burdens of U.S. regulation, wages or environmental concerns. Simply by placing a manufacturing plant 50 feet across the border from the United States, American companies are able to produce manufactured goods while paying their workers less than $5.00 a day. When you consider that manufacturing jobs in the United pay about $12.00 an hour this expansion of U.S. borders greatly benefits U.S. corporations.

Whenever I hear nativists talk about the “integrity of our borders” I often wonder what borders they are referencing. For U.S. concerns taking advantage of Mexican workers, the borders have little relevance to their operations except insofar as they lock Mexican workers to jobs that do not pay subsistence wages. The wall being built on the U.S.-Mexico border will not keep American corporations from moving their operations south of the border. But, Mexican workers will constantly be reminded that the wall is symbol to hypocrisy.

Globalization is a lose-lose proposition

I once supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other free trade pacts in the hope that freer trade would raise the tide for all nations and help equalize wages between nations. I now believe that the critics of globalization were absolutely right. Globalization not only displaces local economies but it opens up weak markets to rapacious global corporations who then wreak havoc on local producers. Globalization is a lose-lose proposition for developing markets (and also for U.S. workers).

Nativist anger at undocumented workers is misplaced. If nativists really cared about U.S. jobs and the welfare of the American worker they would focus the intensity of their anger at U.S. corporations and the politicians that do their bidding. It is these corporations that ship American jobs abroad and the politicians that make their actions possible and this is where their actions should be focused. But as we have noted before, most nativist anger has little to do with jobs or borders and more to do with hatred against Latinos. One need only peruse the dominant Nativist site, and its links to other sites, to see the hateful vitriol that is spewed not just against immigrants but also against Latinos and other minorities.

Maquiladoras employ about a million Mexican workers at $4.65 a day

The impact of the maquiladora program on Mexico and on Mexican and U.S. workers is enormous. There are over 3000 manufacturing plants, most of them American companies, now located in Mexico. Maquiladoras, today employ about a million Mexican workers. The overwhelming majority of these workers labor at the Mexican minimum wage, which at today’s exchange rate is $4.65 a day. Keep in mind that the cost of food in Mexico is comparable to or higher to the prices of food in the United States.

It is not a far stretch to argue that each job taken by a maquiladora is one less American job. At prevailing U.S. manufacturing wages (which have been falling) this is one family’s salary.

What does this have to do with emigration from Mexico? For starters, the maquilas have drawn workers to the Mexican border areas simply because that is where the jobs are to be found. Ciudad Juarez went from a small city of 200,000 in 1965 to well over 2,000,000 today. This population cannot be sustained on the maquilas alone and hence there is a push factor from these cities. Given the dismal wages paid by the maquilas, many workers find work across the border much more attractive.

The maquilas receive almost no industrial support from Mexican manufacturers (meaning Mexican manufacturers get no benefit from these companies) and pay almost no taxes. As such, they contribute little to the Mexican economy and likely even fail to pay for the infrastructure that supports them. Given the lack of revenues from these enterprises the Mexican state has little incentive to provide social services, or even basic infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems or clean water supplies to its people. This also provides a push factor from Mexico.

The situation and possible remedial factors were outlined by Simon Chandler of the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas.

The maquiladora industry grew steadily since its establishment in 1965. But the really strong growth occurred in the years following the signing of the NAFTA agreement in 1994. NAFTA was an agreement which set out to create a free trade zone between Canada, the US, and Mexico. It allowed the free movement of good, services, and capital. But not labor. The European Union (EU), formerly known as the European Community, and before that the European Economic Community, has also established a free trade area. But with the major difference that labor is as free to move as goods, services, and capital. So, as it stands today, a person in Greece or Portugal can freely move to Germany or France to work, or study, or just live. Or vice-versa. Whilst there, the person can use all the health and social services that that country offers to its own citizens. Originally, the European Union was composed or 5 or 6 Western European countries. When nations such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Greece applied to join the EU in the early 1970s there was quite an income disparity between the member countries and the applicants. So as part of the economic integration process, the richer countries provided grants to the poorer countries to allow them to develop infrastructure, invest in industry and education, and do other things that would help develop their economies. There were fears that with the free movement of labor that the population of Portugal and Greece would simply relocate to France or Germany where both wages and benefits were substantially higher than in their own countries. But that has not happened. The industrial development strategy has been quite successful and allowed the poorer countries to build stronger economies. Countries like Ireland and Spain have been experiencing economic growth like never before.

This is an important lesson. There is an underlying perception that if the US opened its southern border, the whole of Latin America would enter and swamp the country. But our experience here at Annunciation House, working with migrant sand refugees has taught us something. It has taught us that the decision to migrate to another country is not an easy one to make. To uproot one's life, leaving behind family, friends, and one's culture is a wrenching decision that most people would prefer not to have to make. Migration is caused by poverty, desperation, and oppression. A country that provides a standard of living where people have enough food to eat, are able to get healthcare and an education for themselves and their children, and where people do not fear their government, does not generally experience mass emigration. But it is this poverty, desperation, and oppression that causes thousands of people to cross the southern border of the US and has led to over 2,700 deaths over the past 10 years as migrants have tried to enter the US. Mexico has an economy comparable in size to the state of Ohio. How hard would it have been to have included in NAFTA a component to allow Mexico to develop its economy and bring about some kind of economic stability to the country? How hard would it have been to provide supports to a Mexican agricultural system that is at the point of collapse and could see millions of people leaving the land in the next few years? (emphasis added)

Until these structural deficits are addressed we will continue to have migration of undocumented Mexican and Latin American workers into the United States. While it is certainly true that Mexicans need to pressure their government for needed reforms the United States cannot pretend that a long wall will solve the immigration problem. Globalization needs to be addressed on this side of the border by the workers whose livelihood is being decimated just as it needs to be addressed by Mexican and Latin American workers.

Further Resources

American Friends Service Committee ( Has a national program, Project Voice—Migration and Mobility Unit, that works to strengthen the voices of immigrant-led organizations in setting the national agenda for immigration policy and immigrants’ rights.

American Immigration Lawyers Association ( A legal association for immigration attorneys with a membership of more than 10,000 immigration lawyers. AILA provides an immigration lawyer referral service on its website.

Border Action Network ( A network of immigrants and border residents in Nogales, Douglas, and Tucson, Arizona, working to amplify the voices and power of those who are most impacted by border and immigration policies.

Breakthrough, international human rights organization that uses media, education and pop culture to promote values of dignity, equality and justice:

Campaign for Labor Rights ( Mobilizes grassroots support throughout the United States for campaigns to end labor rights violations around the world.

CoaliciĆ³n de Derechos Humanos ( A grassroots organization working to promote respect for human and civil rights and to fight militarization, discrimination, and abuse of authority in the southern border region.

Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras( A tri-national coalition of religious, environmental, labor, Latino, and women’s organizations supporting worker and community struggles in the maquiladora industry.

Detention Watch Network ( A national coalition addressing the crisis of immigration detention and helping detainees and their loved ones make their voices heard.

Families for Freedom (
A multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation.

Farmworker Justice ( An organization working to empower migrant and seasonal farmworkers by improving their living and working conditions, immigration status, health, occupational safety, and access to justice.

Global Workers Justice Alliance ( A cross-border network of worker advocates and resources that combats migrant worker exploitation by promoting portable justice for transnational migrants.

Immigration Equality ( A national organization working to end immigration discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive people, and to help win asylum for those persecuted based on sexual identity or HIV status.

Life or Liberty, a non-profit media project begun in 2002 to produce documentaries on immigrant communities affected by post-9/11 policies. The project has produced award-winning short documentaries for grassroots organizing and educational outreach:

Maquila Solidarity Network (
A labor and women’s rights advocacy organization promoting solidarity with grassroots groups in Mexico, Central America, and Asia, that works to improve conditions in maquiladora factories and export processing zones.

Migration Policy Institute (MPI), "independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide":

National Employment Law Project ( Provides information and advocacy in defense of low-wage workers, including immigrant workers.

National Immigration Law Center ( Provides information, policy analysis, and advocacy in defense of low-income immigrants and their family members.

National Immigration Project ( A project of the National Lawyers’ Guild, Inc. devoted to defending the rights of immigrants facing incarceration and deportation.

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights ( A national organization bringing together immigrant, refugee, community, religious, civil rights, and labor organizations and activists from around the United States in defense of immigrant rights.

Pew Hispanic Center (PHC), "nonpartisan research organization [whose] mission is to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the entire nation":

Rights Working Group ( A nationwide coalition of groups and individuals committed to protecting civil liberties and human rights.

SweatFree Communities ( A national network assisting sweatshop workers globally in their struggles to improve working conditions and form strong, independent unions.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), "a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization associated with Syracuse University...information about federal enforcement, staffing and spending":

U.S. / Labor Education in the Americas Project ( Works to support the basic rights of workers in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and Mexico, especially those who are employed directly or indirectly by U.S. companies.

United Students Against Sweatshops ( An organization of students and community members at over 200 campuses around the United States, supporting the struggles of working people and challenging corporate power.

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