Immigration has become a toxic issue in the United States, hijacked and misconstrued to the point of hysteria, while the causes and solutions are traceable and quantifiable but have been ignored. The most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression has increased the stress of families across the United States, drastically affecting the way that the immigration debate is targeted.
As we witness the widespread vilification of immigrants in the U.S. and the anti-immigrant policies that it has inspired, we turn a blind eye to the role that U.S. policy has had on uprooting millions of Mexicans and Central Americans from their homeland, where almost 80 percent of undocumented immigrants come from. A key component missing in the immigration debate is a focus on the root causes of the problem. In “Disposable Workers: Immigration after NAFTA and the Nation’s Addiction to Cheap Labor,” I call attention to the root causes of immigration: international economic policies that have triggered a massive displacement of workers and the U.S.’s addiction to cheap labor.
Immigration reform is a priority and must happen soon but, so far, only short-term solutions have been proposed. For immigration reform to really work, all the factors influencing migration must be addressed simultaneously. There is little point in changing the immigration procedure without also changing the economic forces behind that migration.
There is a strong relationship between free trade policies between the United States and Mexico, the grave reliance on cheap labor of various economic sectors in our economy, and the drastic increase of undocumented migration to the U.S. over the last two decades.
The U. S.’s addiction to cheap labor and powerful business interests have established a deregulated system that is voracious in its demand for cheap and exploitable labor, impacting immigration flows into the U.S. At the same time, the anti-immigrant movement and the immigration enforcement policies that have emerged out of several state legislatures have made undocumented workers more vulnerable and exploitable, living the new American nightmare.
This is why we need a serious discussion that focuses on overhauling our labor, trade, and immigration policies so we can address the root causes of economic insecurity and increased migration and improve the economic opportunities and conditions of all workers in the process.
When NAFTA was being negotiated it was presented on both sides of the border as the magic solution to solve the region’s economic problems. However, NAFTA proved to be a big failure for working people on both sides of the border. Overall it drove wages down in Mexico and the United States, exacerbated the wealth gap and displaced Mexican farmers off of their land and into the already overcrowded cities in Mexico, or on a path to migration to the United States. In NAFTA’s first decade, the annual number of immigrants arriving to the United States from Mexico more than doubled and more than 80 percent of post-NAFTA Mexican immigrants were undocumented.
To quantify, in the years preceding NAFTA (1985 to 1989), approximately 80,000 undocumented immigrants entered the United States from Mexico annually. From 1990 to 1994 immigration increased to 260,000 annually. From 1995 to 1999, the number jumped to 400,000 annually. Between 2000 and 2004, immigrants were crossing the border at a rate of 485,000 a year. According to the World Bank, this makes Mexico the nation that exports the largest immigrant-sending nation in the world — more than China and India, countries whose population is ten times greater than Mexico. When it comes to immigration, free trade agreements have been a clear failure.
Once in the U.S., immigrants find themselves as the perfect scapegoats for a range of problems. Immigrants have been dehumanized and the issue has been analyzed in a reactionary way. The scapegoating of undocumented workers has caused many hardships for this community. Racial attacks against immigrants and Latinos have reached historical highs. Families are being separated by the immigration detention and deportation system. And Latinos in the labor force are enduring unsafe or abusive working conditions that place their health and lives at risk, facing high incidences of wage theft and high rates of injuries and fatalities in the workplace.
U.S. economic policy has been a key contributor to immigration from Mexico. A strategy to balance the economies of North America is three-fold: each country needs to critically reevaluate the social and economic impacts of the free trade agreements; the United States needs to rehabilitate from its dependence on cheap, disposable labor; and Congress must pass legislation that integrates unauthorized workers in the United States to deter their exploitation and bring them out of the shadows. This will help re-establish the opportunity equilibrium, giving immigrants the option to legally work in the U.S. and return to their countries of origin if they choose to. Only then we can promote sustainable economic growth in the region and make respecting worker’s rights a reality and not simply an ideal.
11 million undocumented people in the most powerful country in the world are not a mistake, it is public policy — yet no one is asking who is benefiting from such a broken system. It is hypocritical to keep blaming immigrants for complex problems while we consume produce harvested by immigrants, occupy buildings and homes erected by them, and drive on roads made possible by their labor. Rather than raiding U.S. businesses and communities in search of unauthorized workers or wasting money building walls, federal resources should be used to help re-train U.S. workers displaced by the same forces of globalization that have made Mexico’s communities come unglued.