Trump’s Wall Part Two – How NAFTA Drove Millions of Mexicans North Looking For Jobs

by Richard Cameron

In the previous installment of this series, we examined Donald Trump’s argument that building a wall on the U.S. Southwest border would stem the flow of drugs and drug trafficking into the country. The data revealed that it would not.

In this segment of the report, we will look at the aspect of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in relation to why Mexican migrants have been crossing the border in recent decades and why as usual, there are more nuances and complexities to the relationship between Mexico and the United States than Donald Trump seems to be able to comprehend. These complexities are inextricably woven into the fabric of the debate on the practical effect of constructing a continuous barrier along the Southwest border.

Part of the rationalization that led to the creation of NAFTA during President George H.W. Bush’s term in office, was the perceived problem of Mexican workers heading North because of lack of work and poverty in Mexico. At the time, a research paper was ordered under the authority of an earlier act of Congress, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 – which mostly dealt with amnesty for migrants living in the U.S. illegally.

The research paper was produced by a study group formed under IRCA, called the Commission for the Study of International Migration and Cooperative Economic Development. The premise of the study was that a formalized structure defining trade between the two countries would stimulate the Mexican economy and blunt migration of workers to America.

The report submitted to President Bush and Congress, concluded that “U.S. economic policy should promote a system of open trade … the development of a U.S.-Mexico free trade area and its incorporation with Canada.”  Political  remarks that:

then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari toured the United States, telling audiences unhappy at high levels of immigration that passing NAFTA would reduce it by providing employment for Mexicans in Mexico. Back home, he made the same argument. NAFTA, he claimed, would set Mexico on a course to become a first-world nation. “We did become part of the first world,” says Juan Manuel Sandoval of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. “The back yard.”

Apparently Salinas either did not read the detailed provisions of NAFTA or didn’t grasp the implications of it, because the net result of the trade agreement, put more pressure on Mexican workers’ wages and job opportunities than previously was the case, not less.

The main impact of NAFTA on Mexican workers and independent farmers, was to destroy their competitiveness in the North American agricultural markets. Corn grown by American farmers is heavily subsidized by the federal government and when NAFTA opened Mexico to U.S. grown corn and other staples, wages declined and unemployment rose.

“After NAFTA,” says Timothy Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, US corn “was priced 19 percent below the cost of production.”  Two million small farmers in Mexico found the price pressure of imported American corn, rendered domestic farming unsustainable. Two million had to leave their farms. Mexicans lost over 900,000 farming jobs in the first decade of NAFTA alone, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Consequential to the implementation of NAFTA and the resulting unemployment and worsened poverty conditions, crime – especially the narcotics trade went on the upswing. In response, 500,000 Mexicans trekked North to find opportunities and a relief from their intolerable situation.

Grizelda Mendoza, now 23, of the Mexican state of Oaxaca described how her father Benancio and others like him lost their livelihood as a consequence of NAFTA.  “Before NAFTA, everybody here grew corn. People didn’t make much money, but nobody went hungry,” Mendoza, who was born shortly after the trade treaty was signed, told CNN Money.

Benancio couldn’t compete with subsidized American corn and had to leave Mexico to find work. “He went north looking for a job and I didn’t see him again for 18 years”, said Mendoza. Typical of millions of such job hunting migrants, Grizelda’s father worked in Tennessee as a cook and sent remittances back to Oaxaca to pay for his childrens’ schooling. Agricultural work by 2008, paid less than a third of wages in 1994, before NAFTA.

What Mexican jobs weren’t decimated by imported corn, were cratered by NAFTA’s shoehorning of American pork products into the country. Pork producers in Mexico, most of them small ranchers, suddenly found their domestic market inundated with imported pork from such industrial scale producers as Smithfield Foods. Smithfield leveraged NAFTA to become the world’s largest packer and processor of pork and hogs.

The result of NAFTA’s devastation of the pork industry in Veracruz, Mexico, was yet another wave of migration to the U.S., this time, ironically to Smithfield’s meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

Smithfield had such an egregious reputation with residents as a polluter and an extreme risk to public health, that even NC state representatives normally averse to imposing regulations (because they were bought and paid for by Smithfield and others like them) –  found they had no other choice but to resort to legal measures. The hellish conditions the animals are subjected to is a story unto itself.  And it may not come as a surprise to the reader that imports of pork into Mexico, had a synergistic connection with corn imports, the normal diet of pigs and hogs.

A lack of a border wall, it turns out, was not the impetus behind the mass migrations to America from Mexico. It was a rapacious trade agreement. Trump speaks only of manufacturing in Mexico affecting U.S. workers, but says nothing about the millions of jobs lost in Mexico. If he doesn’t get the lessons from NAFTA correct, no wall will alleviate the conditions that make intensive and costly border security necessary.

In tomorrow’s continuation of NAFTA and Trump’s wall, we will look at how NAFTA supplied American businesses with cheap labor at the expense of American jobs and how Trump’s stated intentions may backfire with consequences that could prove even more difficult to manage.

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