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
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