Mexico Solidarity Network - April 2006

An historic struggle for immigrant rights is sweeping the nation. Millions of immigrants and supporters are taking to the streets in an unprecedented political mobilization that reminds us of some of the great social movements in our history -- women's rights, Black liberation, gay rights.

...The immigration issue is complex and the debate in the US is often emotionally charged. There is more heat than light, and often the discussion generates little in terms of useful information that will help us make informed decisions.

Why? Largely because the immigrant community is a relatively powerless community, living on the edges of society. Immigrants seldom take the initiative in the unfolding debate, simply because they generally don't enjoy ready access to public forums.

This means the discussion is dominated by people who don't feel the direct consequences of undocumented status, who don't know what it means to leave family behind, who have never walked accross a dangerous desert to live in an often hostile country. They don't understand that families in Mexico and Central America often make the decision to migrate with a great deal of hesitation. They don't want to separate their families, but they don't have any options.

The real story of immigration starts with the policies developed in the White House, causing extreme conditions that result in more than 500,000 undocumented workers entering the US each year.

The 21st century immigration saga begins in 1982, with the Latin American debt crisis. US banks lent billions of dollars in questionable loans to Mexico in the late 1970s. When Mexico defaulted on the loans, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (always working under the guidance of the US Treasury Department) faced an important decision -- allow US banks and their investors to eat the bad loans or force Mexico to nationalize the loans.

The IMF chose to saddle the Mexican people with the loans, beginning a debt treadmill with no end in sight. Bankers and investors were paid off with unprcedented IMF loans, and the Mexican people are still paying the bills.

Mexican debt increased dramatically, and this would have been bad enough. But Mexico also adopted new economic policies oriented toward export production to capture dollars for debt payments. The Mexican ruling class agreed with this strategy because they too got a big piece of the pie. But the Mexican workers suffered.

Today, about one-third of everything produced in Mexico is exported, with 90% destined for the US. The dollars from these sales barely reach Mexico when they turn north again to pay off the massive foreign debt. This leaves Mexicans without investment, without jobs, without hope.

The same thing happened, though on an even grander scale, in the 1994 peso crisis. The same decision -- bankers and investors, or the Mexican working class -- faced the IMF and the Clinton administration. Clinton chose the bankers, and Mexican workers nearly doubled their debt. Clinton even took control of income from petroleum sales as a way to pay back the loans, with interest rates that often approached 20% annually. Imagine paying off your credit card or your home loan at these rates! That's what the Mexican people face year after year.

NAFTA also played an important role in the immigration take. In the past decade, more than three million small farmers in Mexico were forced to abandon agriculture as their primary income source. Unable to compete with corporate producers like Cargill Corporation and Archer Daniels Midland, millions of Mexican farmers were forced to adopt undocumented immigration as their only available survival strategy. This is particularly true for small corn farmers.

Unlike large US corporate producers who use massive amounts of chemicals and petroleum, small Mexican producers use sustainable production methods, yet they are penalized in the market as corporate producers undercut their prices. In states like Iowa and Nebraska, corporate corn production requires about 1.2 gallons of petroleum per bushel, a production regime that is unsustainable in the long term.

Massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizers contaminate the Mississippi River and there is a 300 square mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico caused by this runoff. Yet these unsustainable production practices are rewarded in the market, while the rest of society is left with the eventual clean-up bill. And millions of Mexican farmers are forced to immigrate in order to survive.

NAFTA also had a dramatic impact in other sectors of the economy. For example, WalMart entered the Mexican market in late 1992 in anticipation of NAFTA approval. Today, WalMart is the largest retailer in the country. For every job created by WalMart, about 1 1/2 jobs are lost. And WalMart repatriates all profits to the United States, leaving Mexico without investment funds for future development.

This scenario is repeated in the banking industry where CitiGroup owns Banamex. In the maquiladora sector, most maquilas are either owned by US companies or produce for the US market. Profits are repatriated to the US, and the production for export scenario means little secondary economic development for the rest of the economy.

The decision to immigrate is not an easy one. The trip is dangerous, and coyotes (human traffickers) working with corrupt immigration officials on both sides of the border currently charge US$2,500 for the trip. Undocumented migrants are generally young men in their 20s and 30s who reluctantly leave family behind in a search for work in meat packing, fruit and vegetable harvesting, construction, and hotels and restaurants. They usually don't bring children and they arrive in the US as fully formed workers willing to take difficult jobs at low wages, thus subsidizing the rest of the US population by providing relatively cheap food, construction work, and restaurant help without burdening the educational system.

Undocumented workers using fake Social security IDs to obtain work paid nearly US$500 billion into the Social Security fund since 1980. They will never have access to this money, and it acts as a subsidy to the overall economy by lowering the federal budget deficit by about a quarter. And undocumented workers create economic conditions that stimulate job growth equivalent to their numbers, undercutting the argument that immigrants are taking jobs from native workers.

In the current debate around immigration reform, some people oppose an amnesty program because they don't think undocumented immigrants should be rewarded for "illegal" behavior. We wonder if they would have made the same argument during the civil rights movement. Should Blacks who "illegally" sat at segregated lunch counters be rewarded for their illegal activity? Certainly, the answer is a resounding YES, and Blacks won important civil rights by participating in "illegal" activities.

The laws around immigration have been anything but consistent. Up until 1929, the US-Mexico border was largely unmonitored. Immigration was a circular affair. Migrant workers in relatively smaller numbers would come to the US to work during the harvest season.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the US began a campaign to expel Latinos, even those with citizenship. This was a dark time in our history, and one that is not well-known. With the onset of World War II, several million immigrants came as guest workers, until the program ended in 1964.

There was one common denominator during each of these periods -- immigration policy responded to the needs of corporations for cheap labor. And this continues to be the case in the current era. NAFTA established laws that allow for the free movement of goods and money, but severely limits the movement of people. This uneven playing field means that corporations profit while undocumented immigrants suffer.

The Mexico Solidarity Network and Mexicanos Sin Fronteras demand legislation that allows for the normalization of over 12 million undocumented workers currently living in the United States. We also call for comprehensive immigration reform that includes renegotiation of NAFTA, particularly the agricultural provisions, exoneration of Mexico's massive external debt (much of it owed to US banks), and an orderly opening of the borders to the free flow of migant workers.

Democrats and Republicans alike should take responsibility for creating the conditions that stimulate undocumented immigration, and they should provide comprehensive and humane reform that addresses the root causes...