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POLICY ANALYSIS: How U.S. Policy Drives Immigration from Mexico

August 25th, 2008

Fidel Santiago Martinez stands on the southern side of the U.S./Mexican border, a man-made line that snakes 2,000 miles from California to Texas. All U.S. debate on immigration reform, a critical issue during these 2008 election campaigns, begins and ends at this border, centering upon what Martinez plans to do next: take a step without proper documentation into U.S. territory.

Martinez is caught in the perfect storm of U.S. policy, which has the potential of being changed, modified, or kept in place after this year’s election. His family is left behind in the wreckage of rural Oaxaca where the International Monetary Fund’s economic programs have severely reduced subsidies and credit to small farmers.  NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement), by loosening and phasing out trade barriers, has allowed subsidized multinational corporations to import millions of tons of agricultural products that under-price his harvest. He simply can’t compete.

In front of Martinez wait the Border Patrol, the National Guard, rumors of migrant-hunting armed civilian groups like the Minutemen, and a brutal desert that has claimed the lives of over 4,000 migrants since 1994. Beyond all that is a potential job as a janitor, doing landscape work, picking fruits or vegetables, jobs that could earn him more in an hour than in an entire day in Mexico where minimum wage is an unlivable five dollars a day. Martinez will take any job that will allow him to send money back to his family.  He understands that an immigration raid could deport him penniless back to Mexico.

Addressing the Perfect Storm

According to WFP partner organizations in Mexican civil society, the elements of this perfect storm need to be urgently addressed if there is to be an honest and comprehensive immigration reform package, starting with the economic conditions in communities from where people are migrating in unprecedented numbers.

“One of the principal consequences of NAFTA has been – because of the disaster to small farmers in rural Mexico and the loss of jobs due to the devastation of Mexican industry – millions of Mexicans have had to migrate to the U.S.,” says Marco Antonio Velazquez Navarrete of RMALC (Mexican Action Network on Free Trade). “In the last six years 575,000 Mexicans each year have migrated to the U.S. This statistic alone clearly demonstrates the failure of NAFTA.” 

Carmen Alonso Santiago, director of the Oaxaca based Indigenous Rights center, Flor y Canto, has lived this devastation first-hand in her community which she describes as a “community of ghosts.” “Right now the only ones left are the old. We no longer have a kindergarten. Why? Because there aren’t any children. The teachers have left. Everybody has migrated. Small farmers cannot possibly compete with huge companies. If you go to the supermarket, imported tomatoes may cost 8 pesos a kilogram. It costs 15-20 pesos a kilogram to produce tomatoes in the countryside. What do the small farmers do? They lose. They migrate. Everybody is gone. This is serious. There has to be a renegotiation of NAFTA.”

Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa from the Oaxacan non-governmental organization Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA) suggests that leveling the playing field may be the first step to a renegotiation. But first, policy makers have to seriously study and establish the correlation between poverty, migration, and social conflict. He explains, “Under the NAFTA model in Mexico there is no investment in small producers. If employment is not being created, if there is an abandonment and neglect of small farmers in rural Mexico, and if small farmers and the poor don’t have any other alternative but to migrate to the U.S., one can establish a relationship and correlation between high levels of poverty created by this model, the amount of people who migrate, and the potential for social conflict as seen in Oaxaca in 2006. From this analysis two clear concrete steps could be taken immediately to start a renegotiation: either a reduction of subsidies to huge U.S. based agribusiness, or increased investment in small Mexican farmers, or both, to begin to create a level playing field of competition.”

Velazquez Navarrete from RMALC follows Vasquez’s logic and puts it squarely into the immigration reform that needs to happen.  “We have to consider an immigration policy that includes not only the social, civil, and political rights of migrants in the U.S., but that also considers development in the countries from where people are migrating. If they want to avoid an increase in undocumented migration, the negative results of NAFTA have to be reversed. Mexico then has to create an honestly developing economy.

“Instead of destroying Mexican industry, instead of crushing and bankrupting the rural farmer, it is necessary to invest in development projects that give people the opportunity to choose not to migrate, so that they have the option not to leave their land, so they have the right to dignified work in the state where they were born—with a living wage, with benefits that cover the needs of their families. If this doesn’t happen, they will not succeed in stopping migration, not with physical or virtual walls, not with the military on the border. Migrants will continue crossing from Mexico to the U.S.”

Time for a change

Fidel Santiago Martinez took that step across the border into U.S. territory. Like many, if not most, he never wanted to leave his home, his family, his culture, the place where he was born. If in the future there are significant changes to U.S. immigration and trade policies, Martinez will never see them. His body was found this year in the Sonoran desert in Arizona. The cause of his death was exposure to the elements. Martinez’s death gives testimony that millions of Mexicans who have migrated, are migrating, or will migrate undocumented to the U.S. have a lot at stake in the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections. It is time to change the perfect storm of policy that already has decimated too many lives.

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