The impact of trade and immigration |

The impact of trade and immigration


CHICAGO — There has always been a philosophical divide about how best to educate the public on the causes and potential solutions to mass migration to the United States: through the heartstrings or through the wallet.

Lately, the plight of families has gotten all the traction — parents and children torn apart; their struggles, fears and uncertainties.

The topic of economic root causes is a harder sell, but it’s time to swing the pendulum and go beyond the well-worn concerns about competition from immigrants for scarce minimum-wage jobs or whether more low-wage immigrant workers will torpedo national efforts to raise the minimum wage.

When I called Jose Oliva, associate director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a Chicago-based national advocacy organization that seeks to improve wages and conditions for workers in the food-services industry, he told me that in order to truly address immigration’s impact on America’s workers we must look at how U.S. trade policies virtually force migrants to come to this country.

“There will always be a flow of immigrants to the U.S. because of economic conditions,” Oliva said. “It’s a disservice to talk about immigration and bypass economic foreign policy because it is at the heart of why they choose to leave their country — they feel they have no choice. Most of these people want to stay in their homelands.”

Anyone who has delved deep into the literature on modern agriculture and food-system practices understands that a great number of the immigrants in this country came to the U.S. to pick fruits and vegetables, and butcher and pack meat, once the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) made it nearly impossible for those workers to subsist doing agricultural jobs in their own countries.

According to a coalition of immigrant-rights groups that are actively working to inform consumers about the tie between U.S. corporate trade policy and forced migration pressures, after NAFTA went into effect in 1994 — removing tariffs on U.S. agricultural imports and undercutting local producers in Mexico — nearly 5 million Mexican farmers were displaced while seasonal labor in agro-export industries increased by about 3 million.

Not by mere coincidence, the annual net number of immigrants from Mexico more than doubled from 370,000 in 1994 to 770,000 in 2000 — a 108 percent increase.

CAFTA-DR had similar effects. Family farmers in Guatemala — whose livelihoods have been undercut by U.S. imports and whose land is bought up by large corporate farmers — often migrate first to urban centers. But then the glut of workers in similar circumstances forces them north to the U.S.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the Central American share of the undocumented immigrant population in the U.S. jumped from 12.1 percent in 2005 (the year CAFTA-DR passed Congress) to 15.2 percent in 2012 — an increase of 26 percent.

And now we’re staring down the possibility of another slow-motion humanitarian crisis as Congress considers fast-track authority for the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

Writing in The Baltimore Sun, Robert Blecker, a professor of economics at American University, said the TPP “could divert significant amounts of trade and jobs away from Mexico and Central America. … Now these economies stand to lose even more if countries like Vietnam and Malaysia get similar tariff preferences to what the members of NAFTA and [CAFTA-DR] currently enjoy.”

The consensus among most immigration advocacy organizations is that the U.S. is still struggling with a long-term fix for our existing immigration issues, so why is a trade bill that threatens to accelerate new rounds of mass-migration to the U.S. even being considered?

“What gets me is that it’s basically being negotiated in secret,” said Oliva. “The president is trying to fast-track it without congressional approval. It’s an absolute travesty to the process of democracy when it has the potential to affect so many millions of people.”

When you start hearing about the TPP — some political and economic observers say its passage is a long shot at best — remember that though we can’t ignore globalization, we should be wary of trade “deals” that will entice even more economic refugees to come to the U.S. and worsen the problem of illegal immigration.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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