November 16th, 2009
Tension surrounding Mexican immigration is growing, and I think almost everyone involved in the debate would say that the system is broken, especially Paola Gutierrez Galindo. From Oaxaca, Mexico, Galindo holds a degree in Indigenous Law and the focus of her current research is the impact of migration on identity and family in Oaxacan indigenous communities. At a recent presentation hosted by the University of Pittsburgh Center for Latin American Studies, she explained her concern about migration as a Mexican worried about the demise of her community, a view unfamiliar to many Americans. She spoke in Spanish and a translator stood at her side. As a former English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, I was interested to hear Galindo’s perspective, and she had tears in her eyes as she described her fractured family. Her sister left over ten years ago and has since had children. They are natural-born US citizens, but she is still undocumented and cannot contact her family or return to Mexico. Her uncle’s wife left him while he traveled back and forth between the two countries for work.
In the US, the immigration debate begins with genuine concerns, but it can quickly turn into something else. Those supporting stricter immigration laws cite unfairness as the basis of their argument. Illegal and legal immigrants take advantage of job opportunities and may benefit from free immunizations, tuition breaks and workers compensation. Galindo agrees with the basic sentiment that something needs to be done, but in her opinion, neither building a wall, nor opening the doors for complete amnesty are real or viable solutions. The best answers first explore why so many Mexicans have chosen to leave their home communities to live and work in the US and also communicate how this is detrimental to both the US and Mexico.
So why have nearly 13 million Mexicans made the decision to leave home and work in a country with increasing anti-immigration hostility? Galindo affirmed what I had believed to be true, that Mexicans come to the US mainly for employment opportunities, better pay, and to reconnect with family already living abroad. In some cases, families are desperately looking for a solution to low wages and high prices. In other situations, migration is a family tradition.
To Galindo’s dismay, her Oaxacan community is diminishing. Many of those who return for holidays do so with American accents and clothes. There is a disconnect between the visitors and those who remain in Oaxaca, and the gap is wider than just a preference for shoes instead of sandals, or English instead of the Oaxacan dialect. She will tell you that once vibrant and lively communities are eroding and school enrollment numbers are dwindling. As part of her outreach, Galindo travels to schools to explain the dangers and loneliness of emigrating, and more importantly, the importance of community, heritage and tradition.
According to Galdino, the biggest culprit is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and reform is in order. She spoke of the recurring economic crises in Mexico since NAFTA’s inception in 1994, and the acute crises in the countryside. Although many rural Mexicans believed that NAFTA would make business people out of farmers and move the country to first-world status with a reciprocal relationship between imports and exports, this has hardly been achieved. Mexico has failed to industrialize and there has been a loss of secure prices and agricultural products as well as a liberalized entry of US products. Far from benefiting the majority of Mexicans, Galindo argues that NAFTA has caused irreparable harm. Mexicans wearing traditional dress sip Coca Cola, and when those working in the US send money home, it is very often spent on American products such as corn and rice, which are staple foods.
At this point, a joke about American Mexican restaurants broke the otherwise somber tone of the presentation. Everyone seemed to agree that the food you find here just really can’t compare to the real thing. Galindo described how Mexican farming is inconsistent with the idea of mass production. Food is organically grown and cannot easily be packaged and shipped north without quickly rotting. Respecting nature while farming is slow and expensive, and much of the once communal land has been privatized. The only people Galindo sees benefiting in Mexico are the presidents who supported NAFTA and the businesses increasing their profits.
The Trade, Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act (TRADE Act) of 2009 is a bill currently in Congress, where more than half the House Democrats have supported it from the beginning. The TRADE Act calls for an important re-evaluation of NAFTA, including a comprehensive review of existing trade agreements and renegotiation to set terms for future trade agreements. Additionally, the Act proposes the role of Congress in trade policy-making should be strengthened. If this bill were passed, Galindo’s talking points would reach a greater public and the action that she hopes for would begin. Job loss in the US, agricultural dumping in Mexico, and migration trends would be assessed. In addition to the TRADE Act, Galindo stressed that everyone can get politically and socially involved and ultimately work to push for representation of the countryside in both the US and Mexico.
It was interesting to hear Galindo’s perspective on immigration, precisely because she dislikes the idea of Mexicans leaving to work in the US. Her travel to universities on the east coast with the non-profit group Witness for Peace marked her first time in this country. I believe that it is important to engage in discussions such as these because immigrants, both legal and illegal, make up a significant portion of the American population. The very human desire and need for stability, both at work and at home, is driving Mexicans north and Americans apart.