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Milk Supply Threatened: Why Do Immigrants Keep Coming to the United States?

How the United States resolves the immigration issues will have tremendous impact on a number of industries throughout the nation. Employment of undocumented workers is no longer limited to the Southwestern states and those who traditionally travel for a few months each year to work the crops in a few other areas. Immigrant workers are woven into the economy in most states of the union. An example from Vermont illustrates what will happen if those who want to deport all immigrant workers win out. What will happen, for example, to the dairy industry?

“Recent news reports have revealed that as much as half of the milk produced in Vermont comes from farms with Mexican labor. And estimates suggest three-quarters of the 2,000 immigrant workers on Vermont dairy farms are here illegally.

“The greater portion of New England obtains its milk from Vermont farms, which means that consumers at the fancy restaurants of Newbury street or the homes of suburban Boston are enjoying milk, cheese, and ice cream that arrived there with the help of illegal immigrants” ( Rutland Herald, Rutland, Vermont).

Implementing House Bill 4437 or “enforcement only” Senate versions of the bill—jailing and deporting all undocumented workers—would literally remove milk from the mouths of babes.

“U. S. policymakers need to understand that immigration is not merely something that is happening to the United States. It is something that our country is fueling through its economic policies. A recent column by Harold Meyerson of The Washington Post showed how the passage of the North American free trade Agreement, which took effect in 1994, has had a devastating effect on Mexican agriculture.”

NAFTA allowed the interchange of markets between U. S. farmers and Mexican farmers. However, the Mexican farmers could not compete with the highly subsidized U. S. farmers. The corn farmers of Mexico not only lost their corn crop, which they could not sell, but lost their farms. NAFTA destroyed them. NAFTA was the 9/11 for Mexican farmers. The result has been a boom in undocumented immigration to the United States.

“In 1995 there were an estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Since then the number has grown to 8 million (some say 12 million). For generations, Mexicans had practiced subsistence agriculture that supported people in the countryside. But after NAFTA Mexican agriculture could not compete with U. S. agribusiness, and from 1993 through 2002, 2 million Mexican farmers were driven off the land. The migration that has followed might be compared to the epic migration northward from the American South in the first half of the 20th century.

“The United States cannot expect to reap only the rewards of free trade and globalization. If the United States is willing for U. S. agriculture to profit through the ruination of Mexican agriculture, we ought to be ready to face the consequences. The impoverishment of Mexico ought not to serve as an excuse for the creation of a new serfdom of illegal immigrants living in the shadows of the United States. Being a good neighbor means providing opportunities for those whom our policies have driven north.

“And it is not just Mexican agriculture that has suffered. Other industries have been hurt by American competition, and one result is that the official poverty rate in Mexico rose from 45.6 percent to 50.3 percent between 1994 and 2000. It should not be surprising that many Latin American nations are rebelling against the effects of globalization.”

The migrations of vast numbers of people on the move all over the world are related to an economics in the global market called neoliberalism. Neoliberalism endorses the idea of the invisible hand of the market, but also aided by government assistance to large corporations. In neoliberalism the worker is the last consideration, except for the competition to pay the worker the least. Profit is number one.

Free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank which require changes in the economies of poorer countries related to the foreign debt are based on neoliberalism (known in the United States as one of the facets of neoconservatism—also known as supply-side economics). The advocates of neoliberalism claim that theirs is the only economics worthy of the name, in spite of its obvious failures for much of the world and even for the United States.

Pope John Paul II condemned neoliberalism in his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in America :

“More and more, in many countries of America, a system known as “neoliberalism” pre-vails; based on a purely economic conception of man, this system considers profit and the law of the market as its only parameters, to the detriment of the dignity of and the respect due to individuals and peoples. At times this system has become the ideological justification for certain attitudes and behavior in the social and political spheres leading to the neglect of the weaker members of society. Indeed, the poor are becoming ever more numerous, victims of specific policies and structures which are often unjust.”

John Paul II insisted that Catholic Social Teaching made the worker the priority: “Human work is a key, probably the essential key, to the whole social question, if we try to see that question really from the point of view of man’s good. And if the solution-or rather the gradual solution-of the social question, which keeps coming up and becomes ever more complex, must be sought in the direction of making life more human, then the key, namely human work, acquires fundamental and decisive importance” (Encyc-lical, Laborem Exercens, On Human Work ).

Many times the person doing this human work is a migrant, a very necessary person in the U.S. economy, a person usually quite different from the one who is demonized by growing anti-immigrant sentiment.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXVI, No. 5, September-October 2006.