No Choice for Migrants

Much of the current immigration debate is founded on a deep and arrogant mistake: the belief that hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Mexicans, cross undocumented into the United States each year in search of a better life. This view tells us that men, women, and children risk their lives crossing the United States-Mexico border because they have chosen to seek out something better.

After spending over three months traveling through 18 of Mexico’s 31 states on the trail of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s Other Campaign, I have documented a very different view of the forces behind mass migration to the United States—the view of Mexicans who have migrated and returned, of those whose families left and did not come back, of those who have resisted migration, and those who are readying their day packs for the long walk north.

In their experience, there is no real choice, no search for something better. There is only  the option of playing their lives against the coyotes and the desert, or betting on the slow but certain destitution of sweatshop labor, dispossession, and the political violence of the government and local mafia groups. This is the cruel gamble that the neoliberal political model in Mexico and the United States calls free choice. 


But the myth has it that Mexicans cross the border to reap the benefits of capitalism, to work hard and earn enough money to buy nicer cars and clothes than they could in Mexico, as if Mexico itself were not a capitalist country. As if Mexico and the United States were not co-signatories, along with Canada, to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Since passing NAFTA in 1994—the year of the Zapatista uprising—Mexico and the United States have officially shared the same model of capitalism, a model that seeks to eliminate communal land holdings in the Mexican countryside, forcing millions into a homeless flight to the fields of the United States’ multi-billion dollar agriculture, construction and service industries.

And this is a standard feature of capitalism: the refusal to view and consider the violence generated by the system, the millions of subsistence farmers, indigenous communities, and small business people in other countries as well as the forgotten corners of the United States—reservations, farmlabor camps, ghettos—who are cut down and thrown out. The filter of Free Trade Ideology converts these victims of sweeping political and economic reforms into “free agents” and “rational actors” eagerly marching to their home in the market place. That home is not as empowered consumers, but trapped labor, “illegal aliens,” workers without even the minimal rights of citizenship and collective bargaining.

But the filter is cracked. Migrants across the country are taking to the streets, exercising  their political will. They more than anyone know that Mexican migration to the United States is the result of economic policy, not bad weather or the intoxicating pull of bigger trucks and tighter jeans; that the millions of Mexicans who work in the United States, building houses, picking fruit, slaughtering cows, packaging chickens, making beds and serving cappuccinos, are the refugees of NAFTA and the neoliberal model’s unrelenting economic hurricane.

Migration has been one of the principal themes in the Other Campaign. From the indigenous communities of far southern Chiapas to the sprawling state capitols surrounding Mexico City, not a single meeting has closed without hearing testimonies of the economic and political pressures that force people to uproot and risk everything on finding work in foreign lands to the north.  

In the high mountain village of La Veracruz, Querétaro, Dominga Maldonado took the microphone to address subcomandante Marcos and the two hundred villagers packed into a school room to participate in the Other Campaign meeting. Maldonado, a strong woman in her early forties railed against the federal land reform program that pushes communal land collectives to convert to private property holdings, forcing rural farmers and indigenous people to migrate to large cities and, mostly, to the United States.

“In our communities, we’ve only got elderly people, young people and kids,” she said, “many stay over there; some die on the way, while crossing. Over there they are not treated well. They are just cheap labor, and they are discriminated against. Mexico is becoming just a nursery for young people who will go to work in the United States!”

In Tepexi del Rio, Hidalgo, Uiciulfo Quijano stood before Marcos and a small gathering of rural farmworkers sitting on stumps under a tin roof. Quijano, a stocky man of 42, went to the United States to visit his son—an undocumented construction worker—and ended up staying and working first in New Orleans and then throughout rural Florida for four years. Under the light of a single bulb hanging by wire from the roof, Quijano came to “tell a bit about what one suffers in the United States.”

“You break your back so much in the long hours of work that all you want to do is get home and sleep,” he said. “Most can take the physical exhaustion, but it’s the emotional… At times I told my wife: I almost want the immigration police to grab me so this journey can end.”

At a five-hour meeting in Tonala, Chiapas, Jesus Pereda fused his experience with migration into the aphoristic: “In this county they produce so many poor people, they export them.” 

The logic is clear: poverty is the result of policies set in place by the ruling class, and poverty is the motor of migration to the United States.

But the testimonies are not limited to the Other Campaign meetings; they sprout up from daily experiences all across the country. Walking into a pharmacy, ordering coffee at a restaurant, listening to folk musicians in small mountain towns, talking to fishermen by the pier, migration to the United States is only a few years or a family member away from nearly everyone I have met. 


In Morelia, Michoacan—the state that exports the majority of the workers in the fields of California’s $34 billion a year agriculture industry—I spoke with Arturo Oliveras, a muscular, thirty-five year old who was walking in the central plaza with his wife and son. Oliveras worked undocumented in the United States for 10 years in everything from construction in Houston and Atlanta, to picking peaches and grapes in California’s vast, industrial Central Valley.

Before migrating, Oliveras worked the land with his father. In a year they produced 16 tons of corn, which they sold for $2,600, half of which went to pay extra workers. A year’s labor earned them a little more than $100 a month. But after NAFTA, corn prices plummeted and they could not make it. They lost their land.

I asked him why he, and those he met during 10 years of underground labor, migrated to the United States.

“Out of need,” he said.
And why is there so much need in Mexico?

“Because of the monopolies created by the government, because of the racism in Mexico, the marginalization and poverty; that is why people have such a hard time.”

Oliveras last crossed the border in 2000 when we went to Houston to work in construction. He “only lasted a year,” he told me, due to the heat and the relentless pace of the work. But now he’s going back.

“In about twenty days I am going to cross again. I’m going to go to the march,” he told me, referring to the nationwide May first migrant labor strike, purchasing boycott marches. Oliveras does not have the two thousand dollars necessary to pay the coyote, but he has friends and family and the other side and is willing to risk it to march with them.

“Mexicans are hot-blooded,” he said, “and the government over there isn’t counting on that.”

This may be the first time in United States history that migrants risk their lives to cross the border not to pick grapes for less than minimum wage, but to take to the streets claiming a voice in a system that has always locked them out. In fact, in a few short weeks, the migrant labor movement in the United States has already achieved what years of anti-war activism only dreamed of: they have put millions in the streets and forced Washington to pay attention.

Sadly, the attention will most likely take the form of pacification and deception. Washington knows that an angry migrant labor force capable of pulling off a day-long national strike would also be capable of pulling off a week-long strike, which would cause the United States economy stumble to its knees, if not collapse. 

It is now two months before subcomandante Marcos and the Other Campaign are scheduled to arrive on the United States-Mexico border, first in Ciudad Juarez and later in Tijuana. And it looks as if the reception will be even more spirited than earlier imagined. The Other Campaign could prove to be a major inspiration for the Mexican immigrants in the United States to further politicize their up-rising, refusing to settle for a return to the status quo: exploitation and exclusion. The greatest hope for labor rights and anti-racist social change in the United States is now riding on this up-rising. 

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