THE BLOG
06/15/2007 12:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Reframe Immigration, "Corn" Is Key

Americans on all sides of the political spectrum are right to want to talk about the visible presence of Mexican migrants in the United States.  Unfortunately, our ability to talk about this very important social issue has been poisoned by shrill and self-serving right-wing radicals--pundits and politicians hell-bent on convincing us that America is not so much the land of the free as the home of the bigot.

To have a meaningful discussion about Mexican migration, we all need to stop repeating the right-wing keywords that convince us all to be afraid of foreigners--and that persuade us to think everyone who speaks with a foreign accent is a criminal or a terrorist.   That is not the America we know and love.  Rather, we live in an America where every family--and I do mean every family--has a parent or a grandparent who came from somewhere else. America has, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, a "majority of minorities"--all coming from someplace beyond our borders, all making important and lasting contributions to America. To convince ourselves otherwise is foolish and wrong.

But what are those political keywords in the "immigration" debate that we should stop repeating?  And what are the new words that we can use to help us have a discussion that is productive, not destructive?

The answer is:  stop repeating the word "illegals" and start talking about "corn."

Corn?  How can talking about corn possible change the immigration debate?

The answer is a lot easier to understand than we may suspect, and it is actually the key to seeing how wrong-headed the  Republican driven hysteria over Mexican migration has become.  Unless we stop obsessing over English language standards and tamper-proof ID cards and start talking about the role corn has played in driving up the numbers of immigrants to this country, the immigration debate--not the immigrants--will continue to destroy our communities.

"Illegal" Is The New  "N Word"

While they are not driving the debate, the high profile status of the Republican Presidential candidates is holding in place the most destructive frame imaginable on immigration:  the "illegals" frame.   

Just about every single Republican candidate for President has taken up the word "illegals" as a euphemism to describe Mexican immigrants to this country.

I refuse to use the word "illegals" to describe anyone in the same way that I refuse to use the "n word." 

It may sound like some kind of technical term, but it is not.  "Illegal" is the newest racial slur to pollute the American vocabulary. With each passing day that people use it, "illegals" become uglier and uglier.   

If we keep heading in this direction, "illegals!" will become the nasty epithet that violent bigots shout as they take matters into their own hands and beat up foreigners they detest.  In fact, I would be surprised if "illegals" was not already functioning as a rallying cry for hate crime. 

Even worse: imagine the current generation of American children picking up this word?  Imagine our kids--your kids--hissing the word "illegal" through their clenched teach as they single out another kid at school to make fun of him or worse.  We cannot let this happen.  We need to stop repeating the word "illegals."

Why They Come Here: NAFTA Decimated Mexican Smallhold Corn Farmers

Before we get started with new language, we need to take the immigration debate to a new frame--to talk about immigration in terms of the real reason so many migrants have come from Mexico in the last 10 years:  poverty, a massive spike in Mexican poverty.

What caused this?  In a word: corn. 

In a her recent essay "Migration and Corn," Sally Kohn wrote the following eye-opening description:

The seeds of the immigration dynamics we now face are planted on the
U.S. side of the border, the kernel of which is corn. Corn is what
causes migration and corn is the only way the injustices of
immigration, on both sides of the border, will ever be solved.

As the birth nation of just over half of the undocumented immigrants in
the United States, Mexico provides a good example. Although agriculture
is less than 5 percent of Mexico's gross domestic product, more than a
quarter of Mexicans still make their living as farmers. And most of the
poorest of those farmers grow corn. Over 60 percent of Mexico's
cultivated land is planted with corn, most of which are small family
plots. In all, 18 million Mexicans, including farmers and their
families, rely on corn for their livelihood.

Enter NAFTA in 1994, which opened the U.S.-Mexico border to trade. It's
worth noting that before the wealthy nations in the European Union like
France and Germany expanded trade with poorer nations like Portugal and
Greece, the wealthier countries first transferred huge sums of money to
the poorer nations, to build their infrastructure and help get them to
the equal footing necessary for trade to work. Not so with Mexico. The
United States (1990 GDP: $23,130 -- a.k.a. Goliath) became "equal
trading partners" with Mexico (1990 GDP: $6,090 -- a.k.a. David).

On top of that, corn production in the United States is heavily
subsidized. Under the farm bill, which is up for reauthorization this
year, we taxpayers give over $25 billion each year mainly to large,
industrial corporate farms. And the more corn the factory farms
produce, the more money they make. That means there are big
corporations with mounds of corn on their hands that they can sell for
cheap because they've already made plenty off the subsidies. Cheap
corporate corn floods the Mexican market, drowning local producers.

So what's the result? Imported corn now dominates the Mexican market.
For instance, in Mexico -- the birthplace of corn -- one-out-of-three
tortillas is now made with imported maize. An estimated two million
family farmers who can't compete with subsidized U.S. corn have been
driven from their land. They now have to buy imported corn to feed
their families but don't have the income to afford it. Meanwhile,
American politicians following the instructions of corporate farm
lobbyists start pushing ethanol. Even though the "alternative" fuel
actually wastes more energy than it produces, it's made from corn, so
agribusiness loves it. The new demand for corn drives up prices. And so
the price of a tortilla in Mexico has risen 279 percent since NAFTA.
The overall effect impacts not only farmers but all Mexicans,
especially the poor. Since NAFTA, poverty in Mexico has increased. As
of 2001, over 80 percent of people in rural Mexico were living in
poverty.

My goodness.  NAFTA gets ratified in the mid-1990s, the Mexican corn market is subsequently flooded with massively subsidized U.S. corn, 18 million Mexicans who depended on corn farming for their family income are suddenly tipped into a desperate hole of deep poverty (see this 2003 OXFAM report for a full discussion of the economics).

Any questions?  Sure there was migration to the U.S. from Mexico before the avalanche of subsidized U.S. corn crushed the Mexican corn farmers--but the changes brought by NAFTA are the driving force behind the massive wave of cross-border migration.

Having trouble conceptualizing this?  Think of what happened with the great Dust Bowl crisis that hit the American smallhold farming industry in the 1930s.

In those days, it was black storms of dust that killed the crops, sending millions and millions of family farms into foreclosure and setting in motion the great migration of "Okies" from the Midwest to California.

No place to go, no money to feed their families, America's family farmers became a giant migrant population of impoverished people--who stayed that way until the the Roosevelt administration recognized that the only way to treat poverty, the only way to stop the migrations was to put people back to work--to deal with the root cause of the migration itself.

Unable to control the weather, FDR created the the Works Progress Administration which put people to work--radically transforming America's impoverished farm families into a new generation of workers.  And the projects they created not only changed the landscape, but ended the migrations.

Corn Is Key

Having played such a big role in the elimination of the Mexican smallhold corn farmer, the United States has an obligation to lead a serious and honest discussion about how to put these people back to work--so they can support their families.

Not only for moral reasons, but for business reasons, too.  The Mexican corn farm crisis has benefited American businesses by billions--businesses who employ former corn farm workers as underpaid labor.

Corn is the key to this conversation and the solution is long term, cutting across many areas of U.S. policy.

Inside this new frame we can see that building a wall is unhelpful because it will not do anything to alleviate the poverty of the bankrupt Mexican corn farmer.

As history has shown, a person in search of resources to feed his family will find a way to get past whatever wall stands in their way--or die trying. 

And protecting American language and culture will not do anything to solve the problems created by the corn crisis either.  All language laws will do is inject hatred and anger into border communities.

Instead of talking about forcing Mexicans to learn English, we should invest in institutions that foster community dialogue--institutions that bring together working people who share the common bond of trying to support their families.

Moreover, we should listen to our own stories about immigration and understand how most people come to the United States not to take advantage of our system, but because they are driven to find the best way to support their families.   Immigration stories can build a common bond with this new generation of corn crisis migrants.

The Corn Crisis Migration

In the end, when we see Mexican day workers standing on street corners, we should think not about terrorists or criminals, but about migrant farmers seeking ways to feed their children; we should think not about "tamper proof" ID cards, but about the flood of subsidized U.S. agriculture into Mexico; we should talk not about Al Qaeda, but about John Steinbeck and the challenge of our generation--not about illegals, but about corn.

Then and only then--when the conversation has moved back to the moral ground that has defined America for generations--can we find the best balance between enforcing our laws, protecting families and building a better future for Americans north and south of the border.

(cross-posted from Frameshop)