Much of our recent immigration and trade debate has centered on the two’s impact on the U.S. — specifically the influx of cheap labor and goods, crime, and changes in demographics. In addition to his vowed enforcement of U.S. immigration law, Donald Trump has threatened to overhaul the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA — to turn back the Clinton-era accord. His criticism of NAFTA has been echoed on the left by Bernie Sanders. Progressives should not dismiss Trump’s trade and immigration proposals as “America First” provincialism. To these progressives, it should be made clear that to scrap or rewrite NAFTA and send Mexico’s lost workers home is as much “Mexico First” as it is “America First.”
NAFTA and the mass migration that followed have gone hand-in-hand, as best illustrated by Mexico’s corn farmers. In a 2006 report, CBS News sounded the alarm that NAFTA had inundated “Mexico with cheap corn thanks to generous U.S. government subsidies” that at the time dwarfed Mexican subsidies 200 to 1. As a result, farmers told CBS that “entire towns” had emptied and “[a]s many as 2 million farm workers … lost their jobs — the vast majority headed north across the U.S. border looking for better pay.”
Unfortunately, NAFTA’s effects on the Mexican worker have not improved. Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program at the Center for International Policy, noted in a 2013 New York Times piece that since NAFTA began, Mexico’s yearly per capita economic growth had “flat-lined to an average of just 1.2 percent — one of the lowest in the hemisphere.” Carlson added that wages were down, unemployment up and, thanks to increasing food costs, a quarter of Mexicans did “not have access to basic food and one-fifth of Mexican children suffer[ed] from malnutrition.”
Progressives should give Trump’s trade proposals the same fair chance they gave to Sanders’, especially if they want to aid Mexico’s least fortunate.
In an interview in Common Dreams, the self-proclaimed source for “news and views for the progressive community,” Manuel Perez-Rocha, a Mexican national and associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, stated that after 20 years of NAFTA, “most Mexicans are jobless, or have very difficult job conditions, or are underemployed.” In post-NAFTA Mexico, “most Mexicans are poor and belong to the lower class, and this is the reason why there has been so much migration to the United States.” Perez-Rocha told Common Dreams that the promises that NAFTA would decrease the wage gap between U.S. and Mexican workers were unfulfilled and that now “Mexicans earn less than they did in 1994 when NAFTA was first enacted.” The analyst summed it up that after two decades of open trade and de facto open boards, “what NAFTA did was destroy the Mexican national industry and destroy a lot of jobs.”
This destruction is felt on both sides of the border. One only need look again at Mexico’s corn farmers, many of whom have ended up in American meatpacking plants as illegal labor. The New York Times noted that 30 to 35 years ago, “meatpacking plants in the United States were staffed by highly paid, unionized employees who earned about $18 an hour, adjusted for inflation.” Times change, however, and at the time the article was written, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that nearly 400,000 of America’s farm laborers were illegal, including “25 percent of meatpacking workers in the Midwest.” It should not only concern progressives that these are jobs American workers could do, but that meatpackers are hiring illegals to the illegals’ determent. “Companies like Tyson, Smithfield Foods and ConAgra have profited from paying low wages, pushing production lines faster and hiring workers who are much more willing to endure the hazardous conditions of a meat-processing plant.”
In that same article — a piece on Tyson’s indictment for violating immigration laws — food companies were described as complaining about the impact of federal raids on meatpacking plants. A lack of illegal labor would mean more expensive meat, but that’s not the disruption to which they were referring. Regardless, more expensive meat means less meat consumption. As progressives know, “cheap meat” has resulted in more agricultural runoff, the overuse of freshwater and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. How much the meatpackers would charge is not their concern — the disruption they fear, according to one quoted expert, is that they would “have to raise wages and improve the conditions” to find an alternative workforce. Quelle horreur!
Progressives rightly worry about the plight of low-income earners on both sides of the Rio Grande. But if these self-proclaimed advocates for justice truly care about the Mexican worker, then they should give a fair shake to Donald Trump’s proposals. They should look to how changes to NAFTA and immigration policies would not only raise wages and conditions in U.S. agriculture, but also could rebuild a lost sector of the Mexican economy. Perhaps if they do, instead of waving a Mexican flag outside the next Trump rally in protest, they’ll wave it inside the rally in support.
Michael Printy Arthur is an attorney in St. Paul. He holds a master’s degree from the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech and formerly served as a public affairs officer at the Consulate General of Israel to the Southeast.