NAFTA, Immigrants and the Discussion That is Not Happening

One of the more interesting aspects of the current Presidential primary season is the renewed discussion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Implemented January 1, 1994, and by no coincidence sparking the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, NAFTA was a major step in the economic integration of the USA, Canada and Mexico under the domination of the USA.



Sold to the US public as a means of addressing globalization and improving our chances of competing in the global market place, NAFTA was fervently opposed by various social movements and constituencies, particularly organized labor and environmental groups. Both groups, and others, were deeply suspicious of the motives and actuality of NAFTA. Their concerns, as it turns out, were largely justified.


Though NAFTA did result in the introduction of some new jobs, what is critical is the net effect of NAFTA. If one factors in losses and gains, the net impact has been the loss of approximately 900,000 jobs in the USA.


Unfortunately, much of the NAFTA debate stops here or within a few feet. NAFTA most certainly has drained jobs as well as placed restrictions on the ability of jurisdictions to direct their local economies. It has encouraged the growth of sweatshop and near-sweatshop labor along the USA/Mexico border. This is the side of NAFTA with which many of us are familiar. Many of us remember Ross Perot’s famous comment concerning NAFTA representing the giant sucking sound of jobs being drained away from the USA and going to Mexico.


This is not the entire story. And, while it is good that Senators Clinton and Obama have reopened the discussion concerning NAFTA, neither of them have drawn much attention to the impact that NAFTA has had on Mexico, and thereby on us in the USA.


What is critical for us to grasp on this side of the Rio Grande River is that NAFTA has had a devastating impact on the Mexican economy. Through forcing the Mexican farmer to compete with USA farmers, rural Mexico’s economy has been turned upside down. The reality is that the Mexican farmer has been unable to compete, and as a result there began – in the mid 1990s – a migration of rural Mexicans into the larger Mexican cities. Finding few job opportunities, the migration moved north toward the USA. This was accompanied by the impact of NAFTA on the Mexican public sector, which also suffered severe body blows, thereby undermining what little social safety net the people of Mexico had.


This side of the NAFTA equation is critical to discuss because it helps us understand why hundreds of thousands of Mexicans chose to leave their homes and head north. Contrary to the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric many of us have heard, it was not because ‘…everyone wants to be in America…’ but rather as a direct result of policies initiated by the USA and their allies in Ottawa and Mexico City.


I thought a great deal about this recently when I was moderating a debate on immigration within a labor union. The vehemence of some of the anti-immigrant speakers, including – and very unfortunately – an African American woman, was not only deeply unsettling, but equally lacking in any historical context. While the focus of the anti-immigrant speakers was allegedly undocumented immigrants in general, there was nothing in their language that indicated that they were thinking about Irish, Poles, Russians, or anyone other than Latinos, and most particularly, Mexicans. When confronted with this question of NAFTA they had nothing to say. Interestingly, they could also not explain why they had nothing to say about any other ethnic undocumented worker besides Latinos.


It is commonplace in the USA to think in terms of what affects us, and particularly the notion that whatever harms us in the USA must be among the most catastrophic things to affect the planet. Rarely do we stop and think about the actual consequences of the actions of the USA on the rest of the world. Rarer still has been our consideration of how the actions the USA initiates, whether treaties like NAFTA or military actions such as the 1980s Central American wars, end up boomeranging.


A real change in the White House would be for the leaders to see beyond the Rio Grande and thereby actually see what is happening here.

[Bill Fletcher, Jr. wishes to thank David Bacon for the  recent discussion that inspired this commentary.]


Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Executive Editor of The Black Commentator. He is also a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.

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