As the two presidential candidates square off over immigration reform and Romney touts measures like Arizona’s draconian “papers please” law as models, it might be a good time to examine one of the major reasons for illegal immigration: U.S. trade policy.
People of the Corn
Mexicans have long been the people of the corn. Festivals revolve around maize. A meal without corn is like an Asian meal without rice – incomplete.
With 10,000 years of experience breeding different maize varieties, Mexican farmers know corn. They have developed varieties that are nutritious, flavorful and suited for the country’s many different environments.
Some varieties of maize make better meal for tortillas and tamales. The kernels of others add flavor to salsas and soups. Some are bright yellow, while others are red, blue, orange or multi-colored. Some are short and stubby. Others are long and tapered.
Corn and cultural identity are inseparable for Mexico. A fascinating study published in 2004 even links ethnolinguistic diversity with crop diversity.
Along Came Free Trade
Free trade has had a devastating impact on that culture. First came the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1987. In 1994, Mexico joined the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The same year it became an equal partner in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Before the trade agreements, Mexico satisfied its own corn market, as it had for centuries. Then highly subsidized U.S. corn began flooding into the country.
By the time Gisele Henriques and Raj Patel wrote their policy brief on the impact of trade liberalization in 2003, the big picture looked deceptively good. Between 1981 and 2001, Mexico’s exports had increased significantly.
The opposite was true for subsistence farmers, who had been growing 45 percent of the country’s corn. Even in their local markets they could not compete with cheap U.S. corn.
Between 1984 and 1993, corn imports from the U.S. quadrupled, capturing 15 percent of the market. By 2008 the U.S. was supplying 40 percent of the corn sold in Mexico, according to “Exporting Obesity,” a new report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
Between 1997 and 2005, the U.S. sold corn into Mexico at a cost that was 19 percent lower than the cost of production. Timothy Wise, Research Director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, told Real News that in that same period NAFTA was costing Mexican farmers an average $1.4 billion a year. While Mexican farmers were staggering under NAFTA, the big grain traders such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland were raking in profits.
Next: Free Trade, Immigration and the Presidential Election
Mexicans had had enough. In 2009 a campaign to protect the country’s food sovereignty wrote to President Obama asking that NAFTA be renegotiated. “Sin Maíz No Hay País…Y el frijol Tampoco,” or “Without Corn There is No Country… and Not without Beans Either,” detailed the negative impacts of free trade. Among them:
- Massive rural unemployment caused by U.S. dumping
- Tripling of emigration to the States
- Loss of the country’s food self-sufficiency
- Ten-fold increase in the price of a basket of food over the 15 years of NAFTA
- Rising inequality
- Contamination by Monsanto’s genetically modified corn
- Environmental destruction
That brings us to the 2012 election. Migration has slowed because of a weak U.S. jobs market, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, growing dangers of illegal border crossings, lower birth rates in Mexico and economic conditions in that country. However, the problems detailed in the letter to President Obama remain, as do millions of undocumented immigrants, and the U.S. needs to take responsibility for its part in creating them.
Mexicans love their country as much as North Americans love theirs. Millions have risked flight northward because of situations they did not create. Trade policies and major agricultural companies bear significant responsibility for forcing many of them off their land.
Republicans and Democrats are proposing very different immigration reforms. The GOP wants to deport all 11.5 undocumented immigrants, while the Democrats are suggesting a more practical and humanitarian approach.
Economic and humanitarian issues are critical and complex components that should underlie any immigration reform. There are also economic fallouts. Think Progress has created an infographic that shows the Republicans’ punitive plan will cost the country billions.
Neither path is perfect, but the Republicans’ plan is particularly mean spirited in light of the country’s role in contributing to the problem in the first place.
Where do you stand, Care2 readers?
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