Trading on Migrant Labor

The comprehensive immigration bill may have stalled in the Senate last week, but the debate over immigration policy will undoubtedly continue -- especially over the status of the millions of undocumented workers presently in the United States, as well as those who will come in the next few years.

In fact, that continued flow of workers is inevitable, since Congress is also considering new trade legislation that is guaranteed to increase the number of undocumented workers in the United States. Our nation's trade and immigration policies have never been as closely connected as they are today. Four new agreements are currently being considered, while President Bush is pushing for "fast track" authority to negotiate even more of them. All will exacerbate our current immigration issues by displacing thousands of workers and farmers, most of whom will join the cross-border flow of migrant labor that already tops 200 million people worldwide.

Over the last two years, all of the immigration proposals considered by Congress have sought more openly than ever to channel that labor, making it available to the world's largest corporations at a price they want to pay. Welcome to the new world order.

U.S. employers have always wanted the country's immigration policy to supply workers when needed, and get rid of them when the need ended. At its logical extreme, this policy produced brutal results. In the 1930s, tens of thousands of Mexicans were deported in neighborhood sweeps around the country, when unemployment rose and threatened social unrest. Less than a decade later, the U.S. government negotiated the return of those same people as braceros, or temporary contract workers.

Growers (and, for two years, railroad companies) didn't want to raise wages to draw workers out of cities to work in the fields or on the tracks. Instead, braceros were recruited in Mexico, housed in barracks, and shipped from job to job. They were paid the minimum, often cheated of that, and deported if they went on strike. Braceros were isolated and pitted against the communities around them.

Repealing the bracero law in 1964 was one of the greatest accomplishments of the civil rights era. A year later Cesar Chavez, Ernesto Galarza, Bert Corona, and other Chicano leaders convinced Congress to pass a new law that gave preference to families. Instead of bringing in contract labor, the law sought to root immigrants in local communities. It encouraged equality, by giving people permanent residence visas that couldn't be taken away if people lost their jobs or couldn't work. Many in Congress now want to undo that policy, and have proposed a "point system" for future migrants that would end most family-based immigration, only permitting people to come if they can provide labor that corporations want.

A lot has changed since the 1960s, however. Today Congress is also using trade policy to create a regulated flow of vulnerable labor -- a possibility civil rights activists never even imagined. Once the Cold War ended, the economies of countries that send migrants to the United States, such as Mexico, Guatemala and the Philippines, were opened to foreign investors. Economic reforms designed on Wall Street and at the University of Chicago, imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, then required developing countries to create a favorable climate for large corporations.

Today trade agreements, like the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements (NAFTA and CAFTA) enforce those rules. They include ending subsidies on agricultural products. NAFTA forced corn grown by Mexican farmers without subsidies to compete in Mexico's own market with corn from huge U.S. producers, subsidized by the farm bill. U.S. agricultural exports more than doubled during the NAFTA years, from $4.6 to $9.8 billion annually -- $2.5 billion last year in corn alone, the main crop of Mexican family farmers.

Industrial workers fared no better. After NAFTA, Ford and Chrysler's Mexican assembly plants no longer had to buy parts from Mexican factories. Instead they bought them from their own subsidiaries, and thousands of Mexicans lost their jobs. Mexican mines were privatized, their unions busted, and workers fired when they protested.

Corn farmers, autoworkers, and miners all had to go on the road to support their families, joining millions of others. For many workers, that road ended in a low-wage job in Los Angeles or Chicago. For others, it ended in even more poorly-paid work in a maquiladora -- a foreign-owned plant on the border, making products for U.S. consumers.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act established a commission to study the causes of this flow of displaced people. It concluded in 1990 that people are displaced by poverty. The commission recommended that Mexico open its economy to foreign investment and negotiate a free trade agreement with the U.S. Foreign investment. These actions, it predicted, would produce jobs, raise income, and slow migration. NAFTA negotiations started within a month.

At the same time, the IRCA criminalized the labor of undocumented immigrants. Old-timers like Corona and a new generation of activists tried to stop the law's passage. They predicted employers would use it as a pretext to firing workers without papers who organized unions or protested bad wages and conditions. They were right. Over the next two decades, thousands were terminated. Despite courageous, and often successful, efforts to organize, the price of immigrant labor fell.

Meanwhile, rosy predictions of NAFTA's boosters were proving false. Between just 2000 and 2005, Mexico lost 900,000 jobs in the countryside, and 700,000 in the cities. After the treaty was implemented, six million Mexicans came to live in the United States. Another million went to work in the maquiladoras. Mexican wages, adjusted for inflation, dropped.

Free trade's proponents didn't demand a change in course. In fact, they insisted on more of the same. CAFTA brought free trade to Central America; new agreements were signed with Chile and Jordan, and negotiated with Colombia, Peru, Panama and South Korea.

These agreements don't stop the flow of migrants. In fact, they produce it. Immigration laws then regulate it. Employers need access to displaced people, and endlessly predict vast future labor shortages. But they don't want to leave it to chance, much less to workers themselves, to decide where labor is needed or what it should be paid. Attempts to manage this flow of labor have shaped all the major immigration proposals of the last two years -- the Kennedy/McCain and Hegel/Martinez bills, last year's Senate compromise, the Gutierrez/Flake STRIVE Act, and now the recently-defeated Senate bill. Details vary, but the basic structure stays the same.

The bills set up contract labor programs, allowing employers to recruit migrants, who must remain employed or leave the country. The proposals then seek to reduce spontaneous migration. They beef up enforcement on the border, which already causes hundreds of deaths every year, and require mass firings as they seek to drive those with no papers out of the workplace.

The carrot dangled before immigrants is legalization. But unlike IRCA, which in 1986 gave them green cards, today's proposals would make the undocumented spend more than a decade as contract workers. The latest proposal would have virtually ended family-based migration, replacing it with an employment-based scheme rewarding those with skills companies find valuable.

For some Washington lobbyists and Congress members, this went too far. They called for saving the old family preferences, letting the other changes slide through. It's far too late for that, though. Family and community ties have no function in an immigration system that regulates the flow of displaced people created by free trade, putting them at the disposal of corporate employers.

Congress still has a choice. It can vote for these corporate trade agreements. It can keep returning to immigration proposals that treat immigrants only as a reserve of cheap labor. Or it can propose an alternative. Give the undocumented residence visas. End the backlog and make green cards more accessible. Stop the raids, and focus enforcement on workers' rights and labor standards. Set up jobs programs in low-employment communities to reduce job and wage competition. Scrap NAFTA and protect Mexican producers, instead of promoting the dumping of U.S. corn on the Mexican market. Cancel Mexico's debt. Give cheap loans to farmers. Stop pressuring Mexico to weaken unions and cut wages to attract U.S. investors.

People who do come to the United States should be equal members of the communities they live in, not contract laborers in constant fear of firing and deportation. Says Juan Manuel Sandoval, who heads the Mexican Network Opposing Free Trade, "Migration should be a choice, not something forced on families by economic desperation."

The only way this will happen is if Congressional Democrats acknowledge that our trade policies are deeply intertwined with our immigration crisis, and stand up for people rather than corporations.

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Related: See the accompanying photo-essay by David Bacon, "Faces of Immigration."

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