Amid all the buzzword phrases like "border security," "guest workers," and "amnesty" being thrown around in the superheated immigration debate, one buzzword phrase has barely been mentioned: "free trade." It's not that border security and guest worker status discussions aren't important. But, as I discuss more fully in my upcoming book Hostile Takeover, America's free trade policies get almost no attention, no matter how central their role is in the major challenges facing our country. How, you ask, does "free trade" fit into immigration? It's pretty simple: had America actually had a trade policy that lifted up the economic conditions for ordinary workers both at home and in other countries, there would likely be far less demand by desperate workers for illegal entry into our country.
Thankfully, at least one major media outlet, Time Magazine, has now addressed (albeit briefly) the free trade policies at the center of the immigration issue. In its coverage today, the magazine explains exactly how free trade and immigration are connected:
"When Bush, Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet today in Cancún to discuss the continent’s dysfunctional immigration situation, they might consider that one solution lies not so much in guest-worker programs or a 2,000-mile-long border fence, but in trade—namely, a revision of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Perhaps they should ask why NAFTA—which took effect 12 years ago amid promises to raise the fortunes of Mexico’s beleaguered workers—hasn’t done more to reduce desperate labor migration over the U.S. border. That illegal flow, about a million migrants a year, is as heavy as ever...Free trade has also failed to generate enough U.S. and other foreign investment in new industries and small- and medium-size businesses—and, as a result, hasn't created enough new Mexican jobs. Even when new jobs do appear, the nation’s unforgiving low-wage business culture—the dark shame of Mexico's political and economic leaders, which NAFTA was also supposed to reform—makes sure that they still often pay in a day what similar work would pay in an hour in the U.S. Add the recent deluge of dirt-cheap Chinese imports into North America that are taking business previously provided by Mexico, and the urgency for Mexican workers to head north only heightens."
Think of it like the concept behind the Academy Award-winning movie Traffic. The movie makes the compelling point that the way to really address the drug issue is to address not just supply through interdiction of drugs in Latin America, but consumer demand for the drugs themselves. You tamp down demand, and you go a long way towards addressing the issue.
But with immigration and trade, we've done exactly the opposite -- our trade policy has actually ratcheted up the desire of millions of Mexican workers to come to our country. Ten years after NAFTA, the Washington Post reports that 19 million more Mexicans are living in poverty. Similarly, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich notes in today's New York Times that "Mexico's real wages are lower than they were before [NAFTA]" and economic inequality has grown.
That means millions more Mexicans potentially have an even more intense desire to head to America to better their economic situation. Had our trade policy actually included real labor, human rights, wage and other economic development provisions, maybe 19 million fewer Mexicans might be living in poverty. That would likely mean less desire by millions of Mexicans to head north of the border because things were actually developing well in their home country. And, of course, this says nothing of our government's unwillingness to seriously crack down on big employers here at home who exploit illegal immigrant labor, and thus further fuel the incentive/demand for illegal immigration in general.
Now remember -- it should be obvious why so few politicians want to actually talk about trade as it relates to the immigration debate -- even though it is at the center of the controversy. Congress is a place filled with people whose campaigns are financed by Corporate America, which loves the immigration debate pitting nations' working classes against each other, and loves the free trade policies that have driven down wages, human rights and environmental protections all over the globe. For these politicians, it is far easier to bash Mexicans, or propose building walls, or criticize border security than to actually confront the Big Business-bought trade policies that have helped create the situation we are now in.
But it is becoming increasingly difficult for the political Establishment to ignore trade, while focusing on immigration. We are going to have to start asking questions like the one Reich asked in his piece today: how can richer nations be convinced to reform their trade policies so that they actually help workers, both at home and abroad?
The answer points to the silver lining in the current furor over immigration: namely, that Americans' concerns over mass illegal immigration provides an opportunity to educate the public about the very tangible, real benefits of bettering conditions in the developing world. Demand that our bought-off politicians start reforming our trade policies to actually help ordinary workers -- as opposed to only executives at multinational corporations -- and our country will start moving to address global poverty, unfair competition, and illegal immigration.
Making the reform of our trade policy be an integral part of any reform of our immigration policy is the only way ordinary citizens on both sides of our borders will win. This is exactly what the Big Money interests don't want to happen -- but it is exactly what must happen if we are to find real solutions to these very pressing problems.