Imagine this. You are born and raised on a small but successful Mexican corn farm. Your family has owned, worked and lived on this land for several generations now, and you plan to do the same once you are old enough. Then one day, imported corn is being sold at the local market in mass quantities for prices that severely undercut what you have had to sell your corn at. Suddenly, the farm isn’t so successful.
You fight for a few years to keep it up and running, but it is much too difficult to maintain without any profit. Eventually, you are left with the most difficult decision you have to make: you must sell your farm. Afterward, you find work here and there, but you are barely scraping by, making only a few pesos per day.
Then, one day you hear an advertisement about work in America that pays $50 a day. You decide it is worth the risk of crossing 60 or so miles of desert. You may make it to the United States and get a job, you may get caught by border patrol or you may not even make it out of the desert alive.
Many Mexican farmers faced similar circumstances beginning in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed. This trade bloc essentially eliminated the majority of tariffs on trades between the United States, Canada and Mexico. This was great news for giant agribusiness corporations in the United States but a nightmare for the millions of Mexican farmers whose livelihood depended on the productivity of their crops.
Before NAFTA, a large chunk of the heavily subsidized U.S. farms’ excess produce went to waste. After it was passed, however, they could now export their surplus crops to Mexico tariff free. Since they weren’t making any money off the excess before, essentially any price they chose to sell the corn at in Mexico would increase their profit margins. All they needed to do was undercut local competition.
According to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the number of corn farmers has fallen 70 percent since NAFTA was passed, and according to Catholic Relief Services, there has been a 44 percent increase in immigration since the trade bloc was enacted. With little means to support their families in Mexico, many of these workers make the difficult choice to leave their loved ones and decide that a chance to earn minimum wage in the United States is justification enough to make the dangerous trip across the line drawn in the desert sand. COHA also estimates that Mexicans living in the United States sent over $20 billion to Mexico in 2005. If earning $5.15 an hour is considered that big a step up and a good reason to leave your home, imagine what it’s like down there.
All too often, many of us in the United States look down on the working Mexican immigrants before we even think about why so many of them want to come here.
We demonize them for taking our jobs, but how can you blame someone for wanting to work? It is true, however, that increasing numbers of illegal immigrants here can wreak havoc on our already overburdened healthcare and education programs, among other things.
But simply closing off the border with tighter border patrol will only lead people to find more dangerous routes into the country, leading to increasing numbers of desert deaths. Instead of pointlessly trying to keep them out of the country, why not try examining the question of why they would want to come here in the first place? Encouraging domestic economic prosperity in Mexico will be much more effective than building a wall.