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Exploring the Roots of Migration in Mexico

by Craig Hennecke

As legislation for health care reform was debated and passed in Washington, an equally pressing topic was waiting on the front lawn of the Capitol for consideration. On Sunday, March, 21st, 200, 000 people gathered to urge the administration to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama addressed the crowd via video message pledging to work together with Senators who have “developed a framework that includes common sense, effective strategies to protect our borders and enforce the law while offering a path to citizenship for hardworking people who register, pay taxes, pay a fine, and agree to play by the rules.”

Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa of EDUCA focuses on the root causes of migration in Mexico.

One issue the President and lawmakers continually neglect to mention when discussing immigration reform is the impact that current trade policies the United States has with Mexico have effected immigration. In February, I traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a part of delegation with Witness For Peace, to study the roots of migration. We spent 10 days meeting with local members of organizations who focus on addressing migration issues. We met with activists who work to empower & educate indigenous citizens of their rights to water and food sovereignty. We learned from farmers who are working to restore the land and develop sustainable practices, while promoting the preservation of native seeds. These meetings, as well as hours of discussion each day, revealed the strong connection between policies developed for and as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the gradual decline of communities and economic opportunities for individuals in Mexico, which in large part lead to migration to the United States.

When NAFTA was signed into law in 1994, there was much talk of the shared prosperity and benefits for all three nations. The United States and Canada were going to experience an economic boom while Mexico was going to be lifted on to a level playing field; no longer participating as a developing nation. Bill Clinton gave a speech in September, 1993 in which he said “It means that there will be an even more rapid closing of the gap between our two wage rates. And as the benefits of economic growth are spread in Mexico to working people, what will happen? They’ll have more disposable income to buy more American products, and there will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home. This is a very important thing.”

For Mexico, none of this came close to happening. The reality was a tri-government-sanctioned exploitation of resources and corporate plundering of both human and natural resources that have decimated much of the economy and many small communities in Mexico. Increased job loss, a minimum wage far below the cost of living, and an unjust import/export relationship to the US, made it impossible for many Mexicans to survive in their communities. These effects of what is called “free trade” have a strong correlation to the increase of migration to the United States following NAFTA’s creation.

Food and Farmers

The removal of tariffs on agricultural imports created an influx of cheap and genetically modified grain into Mexico. While U.S. agribusiness continues to receive subsidies from the government, the only subsidies small farmers in Mexico receive is via unpaid family labor and remittances sent home by those who migrated to the United States to find work.

Today it is cheaper to purchase imported corn from the US than to produce and sell within Mexico. This destruction of small-scale corn production not only decimates communities economically, but also destroys tradition and culture as it threatens age-old practices that have worked for centuries in Mesoamerica.

Tortillas, which are the daily bread of Mexico, saw a price increase of more than 500% between 1993 and 2000. Currently over 40% of Mexico’s food is imported. During a cost of living exercise in Oaxaca City, our delegation examined the prices of everyday food items. The miminum daily wage in Mexico is about $7 a day. For a rural worker earning minimum wage, to pay for a single chicken it would take 10 hours of work. In the US, it would be the equivalent to paying over $70– for one chicken. The Hemispheric Social Alliance reports that since NAFTA was created, the average cost of food in Mexico has increased by 357% while the purchasing power of wages has decreased by 50%. As larger cities in Mexico offer hopes for higher wages, smaller towns suffer from migration. This obviously is not a system that can support its people. When a farmer can work an hour in the US and make the equivalent of a day’s pay in Mexico, the delusion presented by lawmakers when selling NAFTA to the public becomes evident.


As employment dries up in many communities in Mexico, so do the communities themselves. Ghost towns are a by-product of these trade policies, where families have no choice but to abandon their land and either move to larger cities in Mexico or continue further to the United States in hopes of making a decent wage. With over 1.5 million rural jobs lost in 12 years, a reported 388 municipalities have become ghost towns due to migration problems.

Jobs that have been created through NAFTA are in large part through “maquilas,” factories near the border, which often have massive wage and labor violations. Issues raised over these factories include discrimination against pregnant women, environmental concerns over factory output, lower than minimum wages and shifts longer than usually permitted. As corporations fight to save every dollar, the conditions set forth through NAFTA permit these egregious exploitations. Through the legal design of NAFTA, local and state regulations and tariffs are disregarded if they compromise the potential of capital growth for corporations in the region. If a regulation is in place which does present a threat to profit, and is not removed, a corporation can then sue the Mexican government for losses under the rules of NAFTA. Any laws in Mexico which protect employees, the environment, or the natural resources of an area, are immediately compromised by these overriding standards.


The struggle of supporting a family in Mexico has become much more difficult since the conception of NAFTA. Mexican citizens seeking to find work and better wages come to the US in order to support the communities left behind. The increase in migration to the United States since 1994 has almost doubled.

Often in the media an image is propagated of Mexican people arriving in the US in order to steal jobs and live for free, this is far from reality. From my understanding, it is a very difficult choice to leave one’s own family, one’s land, and one’s community, in hopes of making enough money to send back to Mexico to support them. Often it is the intention of immigrants to work for a few years then to return back to the community and again live with their family. This is becoming more difficult as jobs continue to decline in Mexico and returning is dangerous with the increase in drug related gang violence on the border.


As the issue of comprehensive immigration reform reaches the public forum once again, the impact of NAFTA, CAFTA, the FTAA, and other developing trade policies cannot go unmentioned in these discussions. It is critical to reform these policies in order to create equitable employment opportunity for the citizens of Mexico and those throughout Latin America. While the immigration debate unfolds there is actual sensible legislation introduced in the House to address some of these problems. The TRADE Act is a bill currently proposed which would address many of the fault of our current trade policies as well as allow new standards for future agreements. Outside of the United States, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) ahs been created, which is an agreement formed by Bolivia, Cuban and Venezuela aimed at countering US and corporate influence in Latin America. There are now eight countries supporting this agreement.

Of course NAFTA didn’t start migration to the United States. A history of land conflicts, political exclusion, and oppression of the people have always led citizens of Latin America towards the U.S. in search of stability and economic relief. But if we are to addres comprehensive immigration reform in this country, common sense tells us that ignoring our trade policies would be a dubious way to begin the discussion.

Afternoon light illuminates a wall in Oaxaca City.


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