Getting Below the Surface of the Immigration Debate

By Arnie Alpert

You don’t even have to scratch the surface in Oaxaca, a sprawling state in southern Mexico, to learn something about Mexico-US migration.  Talk to just about anyone and they’ll ask, “Where are you from?”  Once you say, “the USA,” you’ll hear stories about brothers in California, sisters in Carolina, uncles in eastern Washington, or about their own time working on farms, construction projects, or factories north of the border.  Even without tales of workplace raids, desert border crossings, and deportations, the challenges facing separated families are obvious and painful. 

If you do scratch the surface, you can learn why beautiful, peaceful villages in the rural Mixteca region have empty houses and so few kids the school have shut down.  Some reasons, like soil erosion caused by excessive logging, go back centuries to the time of Spanish colonialism.  Others are more recent, like the pressures put on Mexico in the 1980s to reduce price supports for tortillas, and the flood of subsidized corn from the USA which entered Mexican markets after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994.

 Jesus León Santos, of the Center for Integral Development of the Mixteca, met with our Witness for Peace delegation in the village of San Juan Sosola and told us the region has experienced longer periods of drought and periods of intense rain brought on by global climatic change.  Moreover, he says, chemical inputs of the “green revolution” made the land less productive. 

Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and according to some figures, a third of its people are now living in the USA.  Miguel Angel Vásquez, of EDUCA, Services for an Alternative Education, told us that 60% of the Mexican youth who enter the labor market every year are unable to find work. 

More than 40% of Oaxaca’s farmland is idle, says Luis Santos Martinez of the Union of Corn Producers.  “Only old people and women stay in the countryside.  The mean have left for the north of the country and the United States,” he tells Noticias, a Oaxaca daily. 

And it’s not just Mexico.  In a religiously affiliated shelter in the city of Oaxaca we meet 3 young men from El Salvador and Guatemala, trying to make their way through Mexico past migration police and criminal gangs.  A Salvadoran man says, “If I could stay in my country and make money I’d never leave.”  But he’s making his second attempt to reach the USA – the first ended with arrest in northern Mexico – despite his knowledge of the perils of the road.  It’s not like he expects money to fall from the sky, he says.  He expects to work hard so he can send money home to his mom. 

When the farm economy fails, rural people migrate.  That’s the story of 19th century New Hampshire in the 19th century, modern China, of modern Mexico and Central America.  But unlike the “mill girls” who left New Hampshire’s small towns in the 1840s for the bustling new cities of New England, and unlike the workers in Chinese sweatshops now, Mexicans and Central Americans have to cross a highly militarized border and face a climate of racism and persecution if they reach the other side.

Migration between the United States and Mexico is an old story.  After all, the entire Southwest USA was once part of Mexico, and communities near the border have longstanding economic and social ties.  As the economies have become more closely intertwined through the general process of globalization and the specific effects of NAFTA, it should be no surprise that migration has increased. 

What is surprising, perhaps, is that the policy architects behind NAFTA claimed the opposite would happen.  As the rationale went, “free trade” would create jobs south of the border and decrease migration.  Instead, NAFTA and associated policy changes destroyed Mexico’s rural, corn-based economy.  According to the Carnegie Endowment, Mexico’s agricultural sector lost 2.3 million jobs from 1990 to 2008. 

Migration patterns have been affected in recent years by changes in immigration enforcement and economic conditions.  But given the closer economic and cultural ties between the two countries, migration between the USA and Mexico will continue, even with constructive policy changes.  What is needed, then, is reform that makes it possible for people to migrate without placing their lives and human rights at risk.  Renegotiation of NAFTA to enable Mexico to shore up its corn farmers and slow the importation of subsidized, industrialized, American corn is also essential to restoring health to Mexico’s rural economy.

Arnie Alpert is AFSC’s New Hampshire Program Coordinator.  He spent the summer of 2010 in Oaxaca, Mexico, and participated in a Witness for Peace delegation exploring the root causes of Mexico-US migration.