The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce recently made news announcing its support for immigration reform. In so doing, it joins a diverse array of public voices on the subject, from the Diocese of Little Rock, whose Bishop Anthony Taylor has made immigrants’ rights one of his cornerstone issues, to a variety of activist organizations such as the Arkansas United Community Coalition, for whom immigration reform is as much about embracing multiculturalism as it is human rights. Even labor groups have slowly come around on the issue, recognizing that organizing immigrants is more fruitful than protesting their presence.
So if business and labor, left and right, secular and religious are all onboard, then this issue must be a winner, right? One might think so, but the immigration reform package sought by these various groups would only serve to treat the symptoms of a far larger problem, one that must be redressed by undoing the twenty-year legacy of Arkansas’s most famous son.
On January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, having been signed into law by President Bill Clinton on December 8, 1993. That same day, the Zapista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, or Zapistas) went public, declaring war against the Mexican state for its role in NAFTA, particularly the abrogation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, which had allowed indigenous populations to hold communal, rather than individual, land titles. Despite the rhetoric of free trade and increased employment espoused by leaders in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the Zapistas believed NAFTA to be a full-frontal attack upon indigenous lifeways and the working class, and time has proven them right.
While NAFTA in theory allows the three nations to subsidize their agricultural sector, the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have, as a condition of loans granted, forbidden Mexico from doing so. Because NAFTA eliminated most tariffs, nothing could prevent heavily subsidized American agribusinesses from flooding the Mexican markets with food priced more cheaply than it could be grown locally. American exports to Mexico rapidly increased by a factor of four. As a consequence, within just a few years, the rural poverty rate in Mexico stood at over 80 percent, and by 2006, some 2 million Mexican farmers had quit agriculture entirely, being forced into the cities or even north of the border to find work. The same companies which devastated Mexican agriculture have been buying up the abandoned land, further displacing natives.
Many Americans complain that, after NAFTA, manufacturing jobs went to Mexico. Indeed, many did, but there American companies simply displaced local businesses, leaving behind no net gain in employment. In addition, less than ten years after NAFTA, most of those manufacturing jobs were being moved yet again, this time to China or Bangladesh–wherever wages could be driven down even further.
Moreover, NAFTA has exacerbated drug violence in Mexico. As Helen Redmond, noted writer on the international drug war, has observed, “The free market reforms that the NAFTA implemented in the legal Mexican economy reshaped and expanded the illegal narcoeconomy. Drug cartels bought bankrupted farms on the cheap,” while “the unemployed found dangerous but well paying, steady jobs in the recession-proof drug trade as farmers, drug couriers, truck drivers, chemists, street sellers, informants, armed security guards, and sicarios (hired killers).” Since 2006, over 60,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico.
Journalist Garry Leech has used the effects of NAFTA to argue that capitalism itself constitutes a “structural genocide.” One does not have to accept his argument to recognize that NAFTA has created a full-blown humanitarian crisis on our very border, leading people to abandon home and hearth and risk dangerous desert crossings simply to have the chance to earn their daily bread. In 1994, the year of NAFTA’s implementation, there were 4.8 million Mexican-born residents in the U.S. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that number has risen to 11.7 million. Little accident that the militarization of our southern border has increased since 1994.
Few people want to leave their homes and risk life and limb for a chance to work tenuous jobs in a foreign country where they are often despised. But when they have no opportunities in their native land, where they run the risk of falling victim to drug-fueled violence every day of their lives, what other choice is there?
Yes, comprehensive immigration reform is a good step at reaffirming the human rights of our “poor, huddled masses yearning to be free.” But they can never be truly free until we end the profit-driven policies that have wrecked their homelands and reduced them to wanderers of the earth. It is time to scrap NAFTA.