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How Trade Deals and Immigration Laws Hurt Workers—Mexican Workers

Much has been made of the very real woes of American workers. But Mexicans are trapped in an especially brutal cycle of dependence and exile.


Last week, in Pachuca, Mexico, a friend asked what Americans thought of the possible next Mexican president, the leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador. I told him that very few Americans not of Mexican origin would have any clue who he was, and that the same went for the current Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. American politicians on the right, starting with the president, demonize Mexico on the presumption that their supporters don’t know the first thing about the country except for pregnant women supposedly crossing the border to have anchor babies and sensationalized stories about gang violence. That the United States fuels that violence through its insatiable appetite for drugs and nearly nonexistent gun laws would likely lead to blank stares.

That ignorance is reflected in the related issues of trade and immigration. Many Americans see the North American Free Trade Agreement as an attack on good union jobs. They also see immigration as another attack on jobs, with a cheaper labor pool representing a threat to their livelihoods. But in fact immigration and trade are intricately connected, and no one suffers more from their unholy nexus than the Mexican worker.

When it comes to trade, those aggrieved American workers aren’t wrong. Between 1994 and 2010, American trade deficits with Mexico were $97.2 billion, displacing 682,900 jobs stateside. Of those, about 80 percent were in U.S. manufacturing. But the truth about the overall impact of NAFTA is far more complicated. NAFTA largely codified a preexisting set of relations that, since the mid-1960s, had already led to the transfer of millions of American jobs overseas. Moreover, if anything, NAFTA greatly helped those states where Donald Trump performed strongest in the 2016 election, by opening Mexican markets for their agricultural products. Mike Pence’s Indiana has benefitted tremendously from NAFTA, or at least its agribusiness firms have. Yet it is these largely red states where the greatest antipathy toward NAFTA and the immigration it helped cause exists.  

NAFTA’s impact on all three parties to the treaty is complicated, but it was horrible for Mexican farmers, driving them over the border into the United States. Immigration historians have long noted that there are push-and-pull factors that send migrants to the U.S. and other nations, and the biggest push factor for these farmers was that they simply could not survive on their farms any longer. NAFTA rules facilitating land privatization allowed American agricultural companies to create U.S.-style agribusiness operations in Mexico. The U.S. then pulled these people across the border because of the availability of low-wage jobs here. 

American companies exploit NAFTA’s provisions on agricultural products to flood Mexico with cheap corn, beef, pork, chickens, and other products. Between 2001 and 2008, agricultural employment in Mexico fell from 10.7 million to 8.6 million people. Many have gone to cities to work in heavy industry or the maquiladoras—factories run by foreign companies—near the border. Others have crossed the border and become part of America’s beleaguered undocumented workforce.

One specific example helps elucidate the issue. Smithfield Foods, one of the world’s largest agribusiness firms before being sold to a Chinese conglomerate in 2013, built a pork-processing facility in Veracruz, Mexico. In 1995, Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork from the U.S.; in 2010, 811,000 tons. Mexican hog farmers, undermined by NAFTA’s trade provisions, had to leave their farms to make a living. Many migrated north. Some of the very farmers displaced in Veracruz were recruited to work at a North Carolina Smithfield hog-processing plant. When they tried to unionize in 2007, Smithfield had the undocumented union members deported, willing to pay the fine for immigration violations rather than have a unionized plant.

American industrial workers have every reason to feel aggrieved due to NAFTA. But so do Mexican workers, both in Mexico and those who have migrated to the U.S. The enemy of these workers is not the other, but the governments on both side of the border indifferent to their fate. 

Even more important is the story of Mexican corn. Maize was first domesticated in what is today Mexico, spreading across the Americas as the core staple crop of thousands of indigenous civilizations. It remains the core food staple of Mexicans. NAFTA flooded the Mexican market with American corn, driving Mexican farmers using pre-industrial methods out of the market. It was cheaper to import the American corn—or at least it was before corn gained other industrial applications.

I was in Mexico in January 2007 when formerly cheap American corn became expensive after American agribusiness began using it to make ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, and other industrial products. Tortilla prices tripled in some parts of Mexico in 2006. The average Mexican family consumes one kilogram of tortillas a day. So when prices rose to as high as $1.81 for that kilogram in a nation with a minimum wage of $4.60 a day, the protests in Mexico created a brief but major political crisis. It was not only a crisis of the food supply, but a crisis of national identity. If Mexico could not feed itself on its national crop, what did that mean for the security of the nation and Mexico’s place in the global economy? This is NAFTA’s legacy as much as unemployed steel workers in the United States.  

Moreover, because Americans don’t understand why Mexicans and other immigrants are coming to their nation, they can’t empathize with the tremendous personal cost immigration has on migrants and their families. In 2014, I was at the annual fiesta in a town in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. This largely indigenous area of poor farmers has provided a great deal of the immigration to the United States over the past two decades, especially to Oregon, California, and New York’s Hudson Valley. I was having lunch with an older couple and their son, who was a legal immigrant to the United States. That son was the only child of this older couple able to make it back to the fiesta. Everyone else was in the United States, undocumented and desperately trying to make a living.

While America offers economic opportunities, the social cost of migration is incredibly sad. A whole generation of Mexicans in many communities are separated from their children, growing old alone, unable to reunite because the children fear not getting back across the border to work. This is also NAFTA’s legacy, made worse by American farm-states livid about Latino immigration.

None of this is to minimize the outrage NAFTA has created in American industrial communities. It is a major part of America’s contemporary political crisis. But Mexicans feel the same way about NAFTA. A 2016 poll showed that only 20 percent of Mexicans believed the agreement was good for them, while more than two-thirds believed the U.S had benefited from NAFTA. What has really happened is that free trade agreements have benefitted the elite in all nations while leaving everyday citizens feeling unmoored. A renegotiated NAFTA that would protect American industrial work combined with a border wall and aggressive deportations of migrants is not a reasonable response to globalization. Instead, it creates a trade system by which Americans reap all the benefits while bottling up all the problems that system causes south of the border. If history is any indication, that would have long-term negative consequences for both the United States and Mexico.