The political economy of migration

Note: This article previews an argument that will be made at book length in "Illegal – How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants,"

Beacon Press, Fall 2008


Mr. Sensenbrenner’s Family Business


In December 2005, Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner convinced his Republican colleagues (and to their shame, 35 Democrats) to pass one of the most repressive immigration proposals of the last hundred years. His bill, HR 4437, would have made federal felons of all 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., criminalized teachers, nurses or priests who helped them, and built a 700-mile wall on the U.S. Mexico border to keep people from crossing.


Representative Sensenbrenner is more than just a leader of Congressional xenophobes, however. His family is intimately involved in creating the conditions that cause migration, and then profits from the labor it makes available. In fact, the Sensenbrenner family connections are a microcosm of the political economy of migration itself.


James Sensenbrenner’s grandfather started Kimberley Clark, one of the world’s largest paper companies, and Sensenbrenner and the family trust remain important stockholders. The company’s Mexican counterpart, Kimberley Clark de Mexico, is a close associate of the Mexican mining giant, Grupo Mexico. One of K-C’s former executives, J. Eduardo Gonzalez, sits on its board.


Grupo Mexico was a big winner in the neoliberal economic reforms that transformed the Mexican economy over the last twenty years. In the 1990s, the corporation became the owner of two of the world’s largest copper mines, in Cananea and Nacozari, which were formerly nationally-owned enterprises.

The mines lie just a few dozen miles south of the Arizona border.


In 1998, Grupo Mexico provoked a strike in Cananea, over moves to reduce its workforce and labor costs. Close to a thousand miners lost their jobs. Many were blacklisted and left for "the other side."


Then last year the mining giant prevailed on the Mexican government to depose the president of the country’s miners union, Napoleon Gomez Urrutia.

Gomez had accused the company of industrial homicide after the terrible Pasta de Conchos disaster, when 68 men died in a coalmine explosion. Grupo Mexico also didn’t like his drive to raise mining wages beyond government-set limits.


Miners in Cananea and Nacozari stopped work for months to force Gomez’

reinstatement. Finally, last summer, the government gave Grupo Mexico the green light to fire all 2500 miners in Nacozari. Since there are no other jobs in tiny Sonoran mining towns the displaced families had to leave to survive. With the border just a few miles north, many sought their survival by crossing it. The profits of Grupo Mexico and its business partners went up as they destroyed unions, terminated thousands of workers, and forced their families into the migrant stream.


During those very months when workers began to go north, Sensenbrenner organized a series of rump Congressional hearings to defend his bill. He fulminated against undocumented immigrants, claiming they had no place in the United States and should leave. No one asked the Congressman about those miners from Cananea and Nacozari, however. Where did he think they would go?



Other voices in Congress criticized the Representative, arguing that the labor of migrants was needed in the U.S. economy. Not even Sensenbrenner could deny this. Some 16 million immigrants live in the U.S. with documents, and 12 million without them. If they actually did go home, whole industries would collapse. Some of the country’s largest corporations, completely dependent on the work of immigrants, would go bankrupt.


One of these dependent corporations is Mr. Sensenbrenner’s family business.


Every year, Kimberley Clark, a large paper company, . converts tons of wood pulp into leading brands of toilet paper. Deep in U.S. forests thousands of immigrant workers plant and tend the trees that produce that pulp..


Every year, laborers from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are recruited for this job. In towns like La Democracia, Guatemala, where the global fall in coffee prices has driven families to the edge of hunger, recruiters promise jobs paying more in an hour than a coffee farmer can make in a day. They offer to arrange visas to come to the U.S. as guest workers. For their services they charge thousands of dollars. Hungry families will mortgage homes and land, just to put one person on the airplane north.


In the U.S., recruiters hand the workers over to labor contractors. They, in turn, work for land management companies, who tend the forests for their owners. The landowners grow the trees, and sell them to the paper companies.


The debts of guest workers are so crushing that in 1998, 14 men drowned as the van carrying them to work careened off a bridge into the Alagash River in a Maine forest. They were speeding because it had rained the day before, keeping them from working. Carrying that load of debt, even one lost day puts a family in jeopardy.


No one gets overtime, regardless of the law. Companies charge for everything from tools to food and housing. Guest workers are routinely cheated of much of their pay. If they protest, they’re put on a blacklist and won’t be hired the following year. Protesting wouldn’t do much good anyway. The U.S. Department of Labor sees no problem with this abuse. It almost never decertifies a guest worker contractor, no matter how many complaints are filed against it.


The paper industry depends on this system. Twenty years ago, it stopped hiring unemployed workers domestically, and began recruiting guest workers.

As a result, labor costs in the forests have remained flat, while paper profits have soared. Mr. Sensenbrenner’s family business didn’t invent this, but the low price of labor allows landowners to sell their trees for less. Kimberley Clark certainly profits from that.


Displaced People – an International Reserve Army of Labor


In Latin America, the neoliberal system displaces workers, from miners to coffee pickers, who join a huge flood moving north. When they arrive in the U.S., displaced workers become an indispensable part of the workforce, whether they are undocumented or laboring under work visas, in conditions of virtual servitude.


The U.S. immigration debate needs a vocabulary that describes what happens to them before they cross borders – the factors that force them into motion.

In this political debate, people like the miners or pine tree planters are called job seekers, rather than political refugees. It would be more accurate to call them migrants, and the process migration.


The miner fired in Cananea or Nacozari is as much a victim of the denial of human and labor rights as he or she is a person needing to find a job in the U.S. to survive.


This year, teachers and farmers left Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, seeking a viable economic future, after they were beaten in the streets for protesting that their state’s government can’t and won’t provide one. Oaxaca‘s poverty is worse than almost anywhere in Mexico, and last year teachers struck, and the capital erupted in a virtual insurrection because of it. An intransigent political elite, benefiting from the existing order, not only refused to consider any change, but tried to stop criticism with police attacks, arrests and even assassinations.


Are the fleeing Oaxacans job seekers or refugees? They’re both, of course.

But in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, economic rights are not considered human rights. In this official view, hunger doesn’t create political refugees. In effect, the whole process that pushes people north is outside the parameters of political debate.


The key part of that process is displacement, an unmentionable word in the Washington discourse. Not one immigration proposal in Congress last year tried to come to grips with those policies that uprooted miners, teachers, tree planters and farmers, in spite of the fact that Congress’ members in many cases voted for them.


Whether acknowledged or not, displacement has been indispensable to the growth of capitalism. As early as the 1700s, the English enclosure acts displaced home weavers by fencing off the commons where they raised sheep for wool. Hunger then drove weavers into the new textile mills, where they became some of the world’s first wage workers. The textile mills produced the wealth of the first British capitalists. At the same time, displacement created the beginnings of the British working class.


Not long after, Karl Marx called Africa "a warren for the hunting of black skins," describing the bloody displacement of communities by the slave traders. Uprooted African farmers were then transported to the Americas, where they became an enslaved plantation workforce from Colombia and Brazil to the U.S. south. Their labor created the wealth that made the growth of capitalism possible in the U.S. and much of Latin America and the Caribbean.



Displacement and enslavement produced more than wealth. As slaveowners sought to differentiate slaves from free people, they created the first racial categories. Society was divided into those with greater and fewer rights, using skin color and origin. When Mr. Sensenbrenner called modern migrants "illegals," he used a category inherited and developed from slavery.


Today displacement and inequality are just as deeply ingrained in capitalism today as they were during the slave trade and the enclosure acts of English in the 1700s when the system was born. In the global economy, people are displaced because the economies of their countries of origin are transformed. That transformation enables corporations and elites to transfer value, or wealth, out of those countries. After World War Two, the former colonies of the U.S., Europe and Japan sought to stop that export of wealth.

In countries like Iraq, Mexico and the Philippines, they embraced national economic development plans, which encouraged industries and enterprises producing for their own people. Creating stable jobs and income helped build a national market where workers and farmers could buy what was produced.

Foreign investors were kept out, and important industries like oil were nationalized.


The economic reforms that followed the end of the cold war, imposed by rich countries and institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, destroyed those systems of national development. It was a very brutal and chaotic process for those at the bottom of the income scale, but for those at the top, immensely profitable. Mexico created more billionaires during the 1990s than the United States, while at the same time the government documented an official poverty rate of 40%, and an extreme poverty rate of 25%.


Mexican mines like Cananea and Nacozari, along with factories, railroads and other industrial enterprises were sold off to private investors. New owners then increased profits by attacking unions and laying off thousands of workers.


The oil industry, nationalized with the contributions of schoolchildren in the 1930s, no longer produced money for loans to small farmers or enterprises. Instead, in 1994 as the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, US President Bill Clinton demanded that Mexico use oil exports to pay off U.S. banks, who bailed out U.S. investors in Mexican government securities.


NAFTA rules required the Mexican government to dissolve the Conasupo stores.

This government enterprise bought corn from small farmers at subsidized prices to enable them to keep farming and stay on the land. Then the stores sold tortillas made from the corn, along with milk and other farm products, to poor urban consumers at subsidized prices. NAFTA rules called this form of social welfare a barrier to the free market.


Without price supports or rural credit, hundreds of thousands of small farmers found it impossible to sell corn or other farm products, even for what it cost to produce them. When NAFTA pulled down customs barriers, large U.S. corporations (receiving U.S. subsidies) dumped agricultural products on the Mexican market at low prices. Rural families went hungry when they couldn’t find buyers for their crops.


One company, Gruma, monopolized tortilla production, while the largest retailer in Mexico became Wal-Mart. In February the price of tortillas doubled. A small group of investors in both countries got even richer. But where did they expect the people displaced by this process to go?


Where Do Displaced People Go?


Displaced people become an indispensable and growing part of the workforce in this new world order. Not all cross borders. The explosive growth of export processing zones, where maquiladora factories produce for export, depends on migrant labor.


The creation of the original maquiladora program, the Border Industrial Program, on the U.S. Mexico border in 1964, was originally conceived as a way to absorb thousands of unemployed braceros, who had been laboring in the U.S. during the 22 year run of this contract labor program. In 1964, Chicano activists like Cesar Chavez, Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza led a movement that convinced the U.S. Congress to repeal Public Law 78, which set the program up. The Mexican government then needed to find jobs for those workers, many of whom were living in burgeoning cities just south of the border.


To supply those jobs, it changed laws that had prohibited direct U.S.

ownership of factories in Mexico, allowing investors to build plants taking advantage of lower Mexican wages, producing goods for the U.S. market. Over 40 years this model grew to include more than 3000 factories, employing two million people. Cities like Tijuana, Mexicali, Juarez and Matamoros mushroomed.


The maquiladora workforce was drawn from the south, from migrants displaced by the same economic changes – privatization, rural poverty, job elimination

- that permitted construction of the maquiladoras themselves. A new labor regime was put in place to attract foreign investment, including the brutal repression of independent unions or challenges to the low-wage model.


Prior to the economic reforms, the U.S. Mexico border was a remote area, with a very low population, far from Mexico‘s industrial base and workforce.

Without the simultaneous dislocation of workers from Mexican factories, and farmers from south Mexico‘s countryside, there would have been no labor force available to make maquiladora development possible.


This development model has since been reproduced in developing countries all over the world. In the early 1990s the U.S. Agency for International Development not only financed the construction of industrial parks in rural El Salvador and Honduras, but then contracted with Price Waterhouse to study ways of producing workers for the factories. The recommended the incorporation of women into the maquiladora workforce at ages as young as 14, taking them from school and family farms. To keep these young women at their machines through their most productive years, USAID taught the companies to distribute birth control pills to keep them from getting pregnant.


Attention has focused on the construction of the factories and industrial parks, while the dislocation that produced the workforce has been much more hidden. Yet maquiladora workers often later become migrants traveling far beyond the nearest export processing zone. When the maquiladoras are located a stone’s throw from the border, crossing it is almost inevitable.


In developed countries migrant labor is even more important.


In the U.S., industrial agriculture has always depended on it. The farm labor workforce in the U.S. southwest was formed from waves of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Mexicans, and more recently, Central Americans. A growing percentage of farm workers are now indigenous people speaking languages other than Spanish, an indication that economic dislocation has reached far into the most remote parts of Mexico‘s countryside. On the U.S.

east coast, migrants come from the Caribbean as well, joining large numbers of African Americans displaced from rural, or even urban communities.


In other industrial countries, a rising percentage of the rural workforce is now made up of migrants. Industrial agriculture based on migrant labor has expanded to developing countries also. Large corporations like Dole and Del Monte draw a workforce from displaced and impoverished rural communities, like those of AfroColombians in Colombia, or Oaxacans in Mexico.


Migrants now dominate the service industry workforce in most developed countries. As the most recent job seekers, they begin in the most marginal and contingent jobs. Day laborers on California street corners arrive from Mexico and Central America, while in Britain they come from Romania and Africa.


But migrant labor doesn’t remain at the fringe of the economy. The world’s oil industry is completely dependent on it. The oil kingdoms of the Gulf statesKuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi – have many more immigrant workers than native-born ones. It was no coincidence that Halliburton Corporation brought migrants from Bangladesh and the Philippines into Iraq in the wake of the advancing U.S. invading force in 2003, intending to use them to replace Iraqi workers on the oil rigs and pipelines. Only organized action by the Iraqi oil workers forced Halliburton to retreat, and prevented the company from taking control of their industry.


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