Oralia Maceda, an immigrant mother from Oaxaca, asked the obvious last weekend in Fresno. At a meeting about the Senate immigration reform bill, she wanted to know why Senators would spend almost $50 billion on more border walls, yet show no interest in why people leave home to cross them.
This blindness will get worse as immigration reform moves to the House. It condemns U.S. immigration policy to a kind of punitive venality, making rational political decisions virtually impossible. Yet alternatives are often proposed by migrant communities themselves, and reflect a better understanding of global economics and human rights.
Rufino Dominguez, who now works for the Oaxacan state government, describes what Maceda knows from experience: "NAFTA forced the price of corn so low it's not economically possible to plant a crop anymore. We come to the U.S. to work because there's no alternative." The reason for the fall in prices, according to Timothy Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute, is that corn imports to Mexico from the U.S. rose from 2,014,000 to 10,330,000 tons from 1992 to 2008.
Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year NAFTA took effect, and 811, 000 tons in 2010. This primarily benefited one company, Smithfield Foods, which now sells over 25% of all the pork in Mexico. Mexico, however, lost 120,000 hog-farming jobs alone. The World Bank says extreme rural poverty jumped from 35% to 55% after NAFTA took effect due to "the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices."
Growing poverty fueled migration. In 1990 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the U.S. In 2008 12.67 million did, around 11% of all Mexicans. About 5.7 million were able to get a visa, but another 7 million couldn't, and came nevertheless. If our families needed to eat and survive, most of us would cross borders too, despite the risks. In fact, this is what the ancestors of many U.S. citizens did.
And if walls could have stopped this wave of people seeking survival, they would have already. Instead, hundreds of people die on the border very year, a number that increases with the rising number of agents and walls.
The $47 billion for border enforcement in the Senate bill will boost income for contractors and companies selling drones and helicopters. Border Patrol agents will become a familiar sight in cities far from the border. But this will not stop migration, nor is it intended to.
The Senators envision a new system in which hundreds of thousands of people will cross the border as "guest workers." U.S. immigration policy rejected that idea in 1965— that it should supply vulnerable workers at low wages to employers. Replacing the old bracero guest worker program of the 1950s, we set up a system to help families reunite in the U.S., with labor rights and freedom of movement.
The Senators are moving backwards. In their scheme, the price of legalization for some undocumented people is programs that peg guest worker wages close to the minimum. This will impact other workers as well, including immigrants already here. They restrict family visas and give more work visas to employers. In the House, conservative Representatives would scrap legalization entirely. They only want guest worker programs, with more walls and punishment to force migrants into them.
Neither the Senators nor the Congress members will do anything to give Oaxacans a choice— to leave or to stay home. Yet that's what Maceda and her organization, the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, believe is a big part of the answer.
Their alternative is to renegotiate NAFTA to end the causes of displacement. They would give residence visas to the undocumented already here, and end today's mass deportations and firings of thousands of workers. Future migration, they say, should provide visas to families, not labor recruiters for Wal-Mart or growers. "We want to be treated as more than cheap labor," Maceda says.
The Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations is a unique organization because it's made up both of migrants in the U.S. and people in the towns from which they come. It held discussions in both places -- among migrants here and migrant-sending communities in Mexico.
"We have to change the debate from one in which immigration is presented as a problem to a debate over rights," concludes Gaspar Rivera Salgado, a UCLA professor and former coordinator of the binational group. "We want rights for migrants in the U.S. and at the same time development that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity -- the right to not migrate. Both are part of the solution."
But Rivera Salgado cautions that walls and contract labor are no answer, nor is making towns in Oaxaca dependent on guest worker programs to survive. "The right to stay home, to not migrate, has to mean more than the right to be poor, or the right to go hungry. Choosing whether to stay home or leave only has meaning if each choice can provide a meaningful future, in which we are all respected as human beings."