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NAFTA and Nativism

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Everybody talks about globalization; nobody ever does anything about it. The world labor market looms over every horizon with its promise of cheaper goods and lower pay. The public is skeptical, rightly, about the benefits of globalization, but the process of harnessing it, of writing enforceable rules that would benefit not just investors but most of our citizens, is hard to even conceive. And so globalization is experienced by many Americans as a loss of control. Manufacturing moves to China, engineering to India; que sera, sera .

Except on our borders. With the number of immigrants illegally in the United States estimated at 11 million, the tensions between Americans and Mexicans -- chiefly, working-class Americans and working-class Mexicans -- are rising. And those are tensions that congressional Republicans, who don't look to have a lot of other issues they can run on this fall, are eager to stoke.

In December the House approved a bill by Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin that would turn all those undocumented immigrants into felons. It would supersede local ordinances that keep police from inquiring into the status of people coming forth to report crimes or help in investigations. It would help create a permanent underground population in our midst, with no hope of ever attaining legal status.

But the most striking aspect of the assault on undocumented immigrants is that it has no theory of causality. Over 40 percent of the Mexicans who have come, legally and illegally, to the United States have done so in the past 15 years. The boom in undocumenteds is even more concentrated than that: There were just 2.5 million such immigrants in the United States in 1995; fully 8 million have arrived since then.

Why? It's not because we've let down our guard at the border; to the contrary, the border is more militarized now than it's ever been. The answer is actually simpler than that. In large part, it's NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold, of course, as a boon to the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico -- guaranteed both to raise incomes and lower prices, however improbably, throughout the continent. Bipartisan elites promised that it would stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, too. "There will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home," said President Bill Clinton as he was building support for the measure in the spring of 1993.

But NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, could not have been more precisely crafted to increase immigration -- chiefly because of its devastating effect on Mexican agriculture. As liberal economist Jeff Faux points out in "The Global Class War," his just-published indictment of the actual workings of the new economy, Mexico had been home to a poor agrarian sector for generations, which the government helped sustain through price supports on corn and beans. NAFTA, though, put those farmers in direct competition with incomparably more efficient U.S. agribusinesses. It proved to be no contest: From 1993 through 2002, at least 2 million Mexican farmers were driven off their land.

The experience of Mexican industrial workers under NAFTA hasn't been a whole lot better. With the passage of NAFTA, the maquiladoras on the border boomed. But the raison d'etre for these factories was to produce exports at the lowest wages possible, and with the Mexican government determined to keep its workers from unionizing, the NAFTA boom for Mexican workers never materialized. In the pre-NAFTA days of 1975, Faux documents, Mexican wages came to 23 percent of U.S. wages; in 1993-94, just before NAFTA, they amounted to 15 percent; and by 2002 they had sunk to a mere 12 percent.

The official Mexican poverty rate rose from 45.6 percent in 1994 to 50.3 percent in 2000. And that was before competition from China began to shutter the maquiladoras and reduce Mexican wages even more.

So if Sensenbrenner wants to identify a responsible party for the immigration he so deplores, he might take a peek in the mirror. In the winter of '93, he voted for NAFTA. He helped establish a system that increased investment opportunities for major corporations and diminished the rights, power and, in many instances, living standards of workers on both sides of the border. Now he and his Republican colleagues are stirring the resentments of the same American workers they placed in jeopardy by supporting the corporate trade agenda.

Walls on the border won't fix this problem, nor will forcing cops to arrest entire barrios. So long as the global economy is designed, as NAFTA was, to keep workers powerless, Mexican desperation and American anger will only grow. Forget the fence. We need a new rulebook for the world.

meyersonh@washpost.com

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