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NAFTA Key to Immigration Problems in the United States

Dawn McCarty teaches at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“Illegal” immigration has become a hot-button political topic, but one aspect of the issue is rarely discussed: what happens to the families left behind in Mexico when the husband/father (and increasingly, the mother) immigrates to the United States? To find out, I traveled to 15 different communities in central Mexico in 2006 and 2007, formally interviewing 65 women, others informally, and working as a participant observer in two cooperative organizations of women whose husbands had gone to the U.S. In this article and others to follow, I will weave the stories of the women I met into a discussion of the larger structural, political and theological questions posed by this unprecedented movement of people from their homes in mostly rural Mexico to a country that could hardly be more different. Within the context of these stories, I hope to share my confidence that we can understand and resolve many of the issues about immigration that contribute to the growing human suffering on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border. And, most importantly, I hope to share the optimism that I felt after every interview I conducted in Mexico, the belief that good and compassion are stronger than greed and fear. Despite the poverty, struggles and family loss I encountered, I left certain that we can and we must do better.

The first step is to look at the economic and political causes of the desperation that drives today’s migration. Although there has been a long history of migration from Mexico to the U.S., the current situation represents a fundamental change in both the pattern and the scale of this movement between the two countries. These differences are what are having such a profound effect on the families left behind in Mexico.

The causes of the changes in immigration patterns are varied and complicated, but the key factor is the policies associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Nowhere is this clearer than in the rural, agricultural areas of Mexico, where working-age men and, increasingly, single women are scarce, unable now to make the living that their ancestors had made for centuries on land they used to own. Protected by the 1917 Constitution of Mexico, ejido lands, as they are called, belonged to the people in common and could not be sold. Communally owned lands that giant agribusiness interests could not legally buy was the polar opposite of the free-market ideology of NAFTA. Against years of precedent, then-President Salinas managed to change the Mexican Constitution in 1992 so that ejido lands could be made the “private” property of individual members of the collective, who then could sell their plot of land to private individuals. This privatization ofejido land was a critical component of NAFTA, since these communal lands comprised 29,000 communities and three million producers, encompassing 75% of all agricultural production at the time (Davis, Stecklov & Winters 2002).

As ejidos were broken up and title given to the individual campesinos , these poorly educated farm laborers tried to make a living on their small plots of land, just as their ancestors had done for centuries. But now that they owned the land individually, they found that the rules of the game had been changed. The government subsidies that had allowedejidos to survive were now disallowed by NAFTA. The tariffs that protected them from the much more “efficient” agribusiness of the U.S. were gone. But somehow U.S. agribusiness still got their government subsidies, and that fact, together with the economies of scale available to giant corporations, meant that it was cheaper for a campesino to buy American corn shipped across the border than to grow it himself on his own plot of land. There was no way the individual farmer in Mexico, left by himself to the mercies of the “free market,” could compete with the Colossus of the North. Unable to make a living on the land, no matter how hard they worked, the campesinos had to sell their patrimony, and, with no bargaining power, they sold it for a pittance. The predictable result was that much of the land that supported the rural Mexican economy now belongs to the same major corporations, and their affiliates, that own the land in the U.S.

Some of the former campesinos still get to work on the land, but it is no longer their land, and they get paid what the corporations are willing to pay. The minimum wage in Mexico is a little more than four dollars a day . Some corporations pay twice that, or more, but to get that kind of money you have to work very hard for very long hours, and be very lucky. There are many people desperate for a job, and few jobs offered. And the work is sporadic.

One community that I often visited, located in the state of Guanajuato in an area near vast acres of farmland once owned by the people and protected by the Mexican Constitution, is now the property of agribusiness. Acres of asparagus and cauliflower are grown in this area of the country, and then picked, packaged and distributed throughout the United States. Many of the people in this nearby community provide stoop-labor as pickers in these fields during season; this is considered a very, very good job.

During our third visit to a woman from this community, she asked us to walk with her down to the road to wait for two of her daughters due in from the asparagus fields; it was quitting time. A covered cattle truck pulled up at the end of the road. I expected to see food or livestock unloaded; instead, the truck was full of workers from the fields. I watched old women and men, teenage boys, all with wet shoes, and then, the two sisters, Yolanda and Marta (all names have been changed), jump down from the back of the truck. My heart sank when I recognized Marta.

You see, I had met Marta the year before. A very bright student, she had been accepted to a student culture and language exchange program in the United States. Her future looked bright. In the U.S. she would further her education, something not possible in rural Mexico, then return to help her community. What was she doing back here picking asparagus?

As we all walked towards where the food ( nopales , eggs and red sauce) was prepared, we talked about the work, the pay and the ride in the truck. I didn’t have the heart to ask about the exchange program. Instead, I asked Yolanda, the older and more outspoken sister, about riding in the truck, standing, with so many people, men and women, old and young. At the beginning of the ride, she told me, they start out with about 100 people in the truck. It’s crowded, sure, but it gets less crowded as they drop off people, asparagus field by asparagus field. It wasn’t too bad.

They work 56 hours per week, and make 120 pesos a day, the equivalent of about eleven U.S. dollars, picking a vegetable that they don’t buy because it is too expensive. Still, this is big money for rural Mexico. They take their own lunch and water; it isn’t provided, and they work everyday, including Sunday, during the short picking season. The work is very hard, and if you cannot keep up, there are plenty of unemployed people out there who can and who will. When the season is over, of course, the work ends, as does the pay. If you get hurt, well, that’s a darn shame.

Now when I talk about NAFTA in any context, academic or personal, it is Yolanda  andMarta and many other women and their children I see. “This” is NAFTA; “this” is the immigration debate to me now, “this” is what is left of much of rural Mexico, women alone in communities struggling with inadequate or no remittance money, sent back by the male family members they no longer see and are destined to lose track of. This is the end of the road, the losers in the zero-sum game of globalization. In this isolated community, with no cell phone reception, no sewer or running water, we find the people upon whose backs the rich get richer.

Yolanda does not consider herself a victim, and she is not. She is grateful for the work. She loves to work with the land, to work with her hands in the soil, in nature. But coming from a land of such affluence that it is beyond the imagination of these women, I have a hard time with this. In some sort of solidarity, misguided I’m sure, I have refused since to buy or eat an asparagus, my small protest at the unfairness of a economic system that Dorothy Day described as “filthy, rotten.”

While the pre-NAFTA ejido life was not a life of luxury, the current situation is insupportable. Many areas of rural Mexico are now depopulated of working age males (Wise & Cypher, 2007). It is possible, in fact, common, to travel through rural villages and never see a male between the ages of 15 and 60. The advantages and disadvantages of NAFTA may be hotly debated in our exciting race for the Presidency, but in rural Mexico, there is no debate at all. Free trade has destroyed their economic system, leaving them the choice of migration or watching their family slowly starve.

Rural agriculture was not the only sector of the Mexican economy hurt by NAFTA, but it was the hardest hit (Polaski, 2003) . Mexican agriculture has been a massive net loser in trade with the United States, and employment in the sector has declined sharply, from 8.1 million employed workers at the end of 1993 to 6.8 million by the end of 2004. Participation in agriculture fell from 26.8% of the Mexican population in 1991 to 16.4% in 2004 with the biggest losses (1.013 million jobs) specifically among rural corn producers ( Scott, Salas & Campbell, 2006) . In the overall industry, as early as 2002, NAFTA had already forced two million farmers off their lands (Faux, 2006).

Not surprisingly then, the most recent historical immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. are displaced rural people, 64% coming from population areas of under 15,000. (Durand, Massey, & Zenteno, 2001). Of all Mexican migrants, they are the least equipped to function in an advanced industrial society such as ours. Most are in the U.S. illegally, since there are almost no legal provisions for them to immigrate. The U.S. shares a common 2,000 mile border with Mexico, a country of 105 million people with whom it is tied economically as major trading partners and socially by a long history of conquest and migration, yet Mexico has the same 20,000-visa quota as that of Botswana, Africa (Fernandez-Kelly and Massey, 2007). NAFTA, by design, is an opening of the borders for capital, investment and trade, but not for labor. This cruel contradiction is not lost on the people of Mexico I interviewed.

Several weeks after the “truck” incident I retuned to Yolanda’s community and was surprised to see her home in the middle of the day. I assumed the picking season had ended, but it had not. She had been fired because a relative got into an argument, and she, by association, was fired along with all her family members. She talked about going to the state of Zacatecas where she would live in temporary housing with others from her community and work together to pick tomatoes for 3 pesos a bushel. I wondered how long it would be until she was forced to try to migrate north to support herself and her family, without documents, across a dangerous border, particularly dangerous for women. And, that, I can both hardly stand to think about, and hope not to forget.


Davis, B., Stecklov, G. & Winters, P. (2002). Domestic and international migration from rural Mexico: Disaggregating the effects of network structures and composition. Population Studies, 56 (3), 291-309.

Durand, J., Massey, D. S., & Zenteno, R. M. (2001). Mexican immigration to the United States: Continuities and changes. Latin American R-esearch Review, 36 (1), 107-127.

Faux, J. (2006). The Global Class War. John Wiley and Sons: Hoboken.

Fernandez-Kelly, P., & Massey, D. S. (2007). Borders for whom? The role of NAFTA in Mexico-U.S. migration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 610 (1), 98-118.

Polaski, S. (2003). Jobs, wages, and household income. In NAFTA’s Promise and Reality: Lessons From Mexico for the Hemisphere , ed. J. J. Audley et al. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Salas, C. (2001). The impact of NAFTA on wages and incomes in Mexico. In NAFTA at Seven, Briefing Paper. Economic Policy Institute, Washington, D.C.: EPI.

Scott, R. E., Salas, C., & Campbell, B. (2006). Revisiting NAFTA: Still not working for North America’s workers (Briefing Paper No. 173). Washington: Economic Policy Institute.

Wise, R. D., & Cypher, J. M. (2007). The strategic role of Mexican labor under NAFTA: Critical perspectives on current economic integration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 610 (1), 120-142.


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIII, No. 3, May-June 2008.