How Bad U.S.-Latin American Policy Fuels Unauthorized Immigration

Too often, the immigration debate in this country ignores the role U.S. foreign policy plays in fueling unauthorized immigration. But as the Obama administration continues to stall on immigration reform in the United States — all the while moving forward with two contentious trade agreements with Colombia and Panama — the connections between the two are worth examining.

CAFTA impoverished Salvadoran famers

During President Obama’s tour of Latin America last month, ongoing mass protests underscored the U.S. government’s own hand in stimulating unauthorized immigration to its borders. Reporting on the president’s visit to El Salvador, for example, Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! notes that hundreds of Salvadorans gathered to demand the renegotiation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which devastated the country’s agricultural sector, impoverishing and displacing farmers. Considered alongside the country’s tragic history of U.S.-backed military repression (which Democracy Now! explores in greater detail), it should be no surprise that El Salvador is the second largest source of undocumented immigrants to the United States.

NAFTA displaces one million Mexican farmers

The first, of course, is Mexico — which has its own sordid history of U.S. involvement. As Michelle Chen at explains, “the deregulation of agriculture under [the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s] coincided with the devastation of Mexico’s farm sector, displacing some one million farmers and driving many northward across the border in search of work.”

While NAFTA created considerable economic opportunities for U.S. businesses eager to conduct business in low-wage Mexico, it also allowed American farmers to flood the Mexican market with government-subsidized corn — destroying the country’s own corn industry and bankrupting thousands of agricultural workers.

Obama’s 180 on Latin American policy

It’s worth noting that Obama, during his presidential campaign, promised to overhaul NAFTA on the grounds that “our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it [sic] should also be good for Main Street.” Yet, as Steve Ellner argues in the latest issue of In These Times, Obama gradually abandoned his initially critical stance on Latin American policy — choosing instead to “placate rightist critics.” Ellner adds that Obama’s shifting position on the pending (CAFTA-modeled) trade agreement with Colombia — moving “from opposition…to lukewarm endorsement…to vigorous support — is just one example of his turnabout on Latin American policy.”

While Obama has taken some steps to address potential labor abuses in the agreement (NAFTA and CAFTA’s absence of such measures is a key criticism of the deals), trade unionists in Colombia and the United States alike have voiced skepticism:

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen argued against the agreement by pointing out that 15 million Colombians representing 82 percent of the working population are not recognized as workers and thus under the law “have no rights.”

Big Business funds paramilitary killings in Colombia

The skepticism is well founded, as the United States has a long history of favoring business interests over the rights of workers — both at home and abroad. Earlier this month, for instance, evidence surfaced that the Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International may have hired Colombian paramilitary groups “responsible for countless killings” as security for its Colombian facilities. This is in spite of the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded an investigation of Chiquita in 2007, ruling that any money paid out to the paramilitary groups — one of which was a designated terrorist watch group — was extorted, and that “Chiquita never received any actual services in exchange for them.”

Jim Lobe and Aprille Muscara of Inter Press Service report that the documents were released by the National Security Archive (NSA), an independent research group, on the same day that President Obama met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss labor rights in the pending trade agreement. According to Michael Evans, NSA’s chief researcher on Colombia, the evidence against Chiquita is clear.

“What we still don’t know is why U.S. prosecutors overlooked what appears to be clear evidence that Chiquita benefited from these transactions,” he told IPS.

U.S. banks launder billions for Mexican drug cartels

Even more recently, news broke that the federal government failed to prosecute a number of U.S. banks guilty of laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels. New America Media/Al Diá reports that Wachovia (now owned by Wells Fargo) alone moved $378.4 billion for cartels through money exchangers and $4.7 billion handled in bulk cash between 2004 and 2007. Yet this past March, the federal government formally dropped all charges against the bank, per a settle agreement reached the previous year, and despite Wachovia’s indirect role in financing a five-year drug war that has taken countless lives and continues to drive unauthorized immigration to the United States.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint.


Related Stories:

Mexican Journalists Seek Peace From Drug Cartels

Declining Coffee Production Is Climate Change’s Canary In the Coal Mine

Obama: Talking to the American People Like Adults


Photo from the World Bank Photo Collection via flickr
written by Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger


Glenn M.
Glenn Meyer6 years ago

Raise the fines for hiring illegally.

Lionel G.
Lionel G.6 years ago

Globalization kills.

Paul Diamond
Paul Diamond6 years ago

I would like to offer these solutions for illegal immigration.
Make the hiring of undocumented aliens a Class 'A' Felony. An employer caught hiring an undocumented worker would be subject to at least 1 year in prison and a minimum fine of $5000 per illegal hire. This would discourage the hiring of undocumented workers. It would reduce the jobs available to illegals. It would reduce the number of people who want to come here once they learn that there won't be jobs for them. We must, also, actively put a stop to slavery in all forms here and abroad.
Renegotiate NAFTA, CAFTA, current and future free trade agreements(FTA) to include allowing for collective bargaining, worker safety, minimum wage and environmental protections. It would go a long way toward improving the economies of our trading partners, providing jobs for the millions of workers fleeing their countries. It will also go a long way toward restoring the reputation of the United States.
American workers are the most productive in the world. When they are allowed to compete on an equal economic field. By providing for a 'level playing field' it would expand the foreign markets for American goods. Also, it would discourage American corporations from shipping American jobs abroad.
If people cannot feed their families no wall, no amount of police, no army, certainly, not having the right papers will ever stop them from seeking an opportunity to work!

Carol Smith
Carol Smith6 years ago

If El Salvador, Mexico and other countries are trying to utilize their fertile areas better and grow more food for marketing in the US, and, I hope, other places, and their governments are causing mass dislocations and unsupported starvation and the like in our name, someone in our government needs to be told to stop this sad state at once. If this is why illegals come running here to take jobs from citizens trying to get by on pittances, and this is why our government gives foreigners more than us, we sit here demanding they stop paying them guilt money or hush money and get sane and real. If we do not mean to make a demand like this, and honestly do not have the market ourselves, we should admit it and send them to other countries in the UN to market their foods, or even to the UN itself, some kind of international food task force to reach the starving. If the dislocated farmers there are running straight here, they give their own governments a bad name here. Why can they not notify them they so stand? Why can those whose duty they are not stand by them and arrange their support while the government plans these things? And where is our government and are our ambassadors that they cannot do any diplomatic merit at all in stemming this mad rush here from wherever?

Michael R.
Michael R.6 years ago

Why do you people think that politicians won't do anything about illegal immagration. People say that Democrats just want votes and Republicans just want cheap labor. Neither is true. They both just want the money that won't be claimed in tax refunds, the money that is paid into social security that benifits will ever be paid out. As far as property taxes go, foreign nationals can own property even if they live in their own countries and sales taxes just plain suck periond.
Having said all that, illegals keep coming anyway

Tom Dundee
Tom Dundee6 years ago


I never said we were the only nation hurt by this. But I do know we have being a food exporter to a food importer. We began outsourcing in the 1950s. In 1963, JFK identified it a problem that would cause problems in the future. It has. Congress had to act back then and they still haven't. My comment stated that we were being crippled economically by the things our govt has done. We are near the tipping point or the point of no return. Our time limited. The invasion of illegal immigrants began in the 1960s. This stuff started well before NAFTA & CAFTA were even ideas let alone implemented.

I know very well who is doing this and doing it to destroy the US. If that is not their intent, what is?

Morgan Getham
Morgan Getham6 years ago

First, you need to recognize that the IPS and National Security Archive are NOT disinterested parties, but highly partisan organizations with axes to grind in this debate. They cannot be counted on as unbiased authorities. And note that the descriptions are hemmed around with qualifiers like "... MAY have hired ..." and " ... any money paid out ... was extorted ...", without stating that there actually WAS money paid out, or how much was involved.

And "Free TRADE Agreements" are not meant to BE Labor Agreements, they are meant to be agreements between countries that will govern the flow of goods between the countries, permitting each country to sell its goods to the other (and, in these cases, permitting each country's citizens and companies to invest capital to build businesses that employ people in the others, which has benefitted both sides. Mexican entrepreneurs, like Carlos Slim Helu, have successfully invested in this country, so it is definitely NOT all one-way). The United States, going back many years now, has been a major exporter of food. And prominent American CONSERVATIVE politicians, from Barry Goldwater to Newt Gingrich, have called for an end to U.S. farm subsidies. It's the "progressives" who won't let go of these "New Deal" programs.

This article is using half-truths, and is barking up the wrong tree.

Cheryl H.
Cheryl H.6 years ago

Tom D.,

The US is far from being the country most hurt by NAFTA/CAFTA. Both agreements were to our benefit as they made it possible for us to flood the markets in other countries with our products, which led to many in those countries being forced out of business because U.S-made goods were less expensive, meaning less demand for what native farmers and native workers produced. Farmers and businesses in the U.S. can afford to sell their products at such a low price because of government subsidies, which their counterparts in other countries do not receive. Free trade agreements aren't what's damaged our nation. Corporate greed and outsourcing, among others, are.

Tom Dundee
Tom Dundee6 years ago

I am not eligible to give green stars, but if I was; I would send them to Lindsey, Carole, Lee S, Vince, Billie C, and the other Robert O.

You guys understand the big picture.

While to follow the thought process the above article will end with the demise of the US. As presented here and elsewhere, the US is never to act in its own self interests and we haven't been for some time now. Some people benefit and it is not the midddle class. It hasn't been America's lower class, because they have been replaced by a group of foreigners below them. America's former lower class is being filled with those who were the middle class.

Like I said, I hope and wish to be wrong; but I don't see anything changing. Again, write this down.

Tom Dundee
Tom Dundee6 years ago

I am not sure who benefits from NAFTA & CAFTA, but it has not been the American middle class which has been under attack since the 1950s. If the Middle Class were an animal, it would be on the endangered species list.

As I see it, CAFTA & NAFTA has hurt the US more than any other nation. Clinton, Dukakis, & both Bushs supported them. It is not a party thing.

Obama has not renigged on any of his immigration promises and is not placating anyone, definitely not the right. I cannot think of any leader of the so-called right that is opposed to unlimited illegal immigration or amnesty. That is Amnesty for 30 million plus illegal aliens in the US all with the option to bring in an unlimited number of close relatives. Some one do the math here.
A minimal 10 relatives times 30 million illegals.

Admitting unlimited illegal aliens entering the US was & is supported by those mentioned above and Gore, Kerry, & McCain. Again, both parties.

When the middle class is gone so is the US as a Constitutional Republic. The US is being destroyed by debt and immigration. Contrary to myth, the US is the victim here as we will be the ones to disappear. This is no accident but a result of planning and a lot of effort.

People write this down and place it somewhere you won't lose it and look at it in 5 to 10 years. I can't prove this because I am only an observer. I am not crazy and I wish & hope that I would be wrong.