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Neoliberalism Plays Key Role in Economically Forced Mexican Migration to US

(Photo: Beacon Press)

Migrants are being forced by global corporate forces and governments to leave Mexico to survive. Read The Right to Stay Home with a contribution of $35 or more to Truthout. Become informed and support corporate-free journalism at the same time. Click here for the book.

The Right to Stay Home.(Photo: Beacon Press)Noam Chomsky succinctly articulates the importance of David’s Bacon new book on Mexican (and Central American) migration to the United States for economic survival: “Combining evocative personal narratives with penetrating geopolitical analysis, this compelling study vividly reveals the devastating effects on Mexico of the global class war of the past decades, and their impact on the United States. Perhaps the most striking demand of the victims is “the right to not migrate,” the right to live with dignity and hope, bitterly attacked under the neoliberal version of globalization.”

Truthout talked with David Bacon, author of The Right to Stay Home, about how much of the Mexican migration to the United States comes about in dire response to profiteering economic and nation-state strategies.

Mark Karlin: When people become economic pawns instead of looked upon as human beings with dignity, they often lose their “right to stay home,” you argue. Given the massive government, corporate and global trade forces that create dire economic circumstances in Mexico and Central America – particularly with indigenous populations – where does resistance begin as you discuss in your last chapter?

David Bacon: It begins in the home communities of migrants themselves. The book describes one of the most important organizations that is calling for resistance and the right to stay home – the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations. They were able to get the first non-PRI [dominant political party] governor of Oaxaca to make a commitment to development that could give people some alternative to forced migration. But this demand is also now being put forward by migrant, especially indigenous migrant organizations throughout Latin America, in the Philippines, and we’re now hearing it in the alternative People’s Global Agenda on Migration gathering that will take place in New York next month during the UN’s high-level dialogue on migration.

MK: You are masterful and indefatigable in detailing how various neoliberal economic policies have devastated particularly those poor in Mexico who relied on a subsistence agrarian existence. How did NAFTA wound the impoverished but livable rural indigenous economies, forcing efforts to migrate to the US?

DB: NAFTA allowed the dumping of corn, meat and other agricultural products in Mexico at low prices by huge corporations whose costs in the US are subsidized by the US farm bill. They did this in order to take over the market, and today one company, for instance, Smithfield Foods, sells 25 percent of all the pork in Mexico. That made it very difficult for Mexican farmers to grow crops or raise animals and sell them at a price that would pay the cost of producing them. When they couldn’t survive as farmers, they had to leave home looking for work.

MK: You detail how the guest worker program, now known as visas H2A and H2B (to continue in the proposed immigration “reform” in another guise – formerly the large-scale bracero program) exploits basic human rights and formalizes the use of sub-livable wage workers from Mexico. I knew this continued feature of “immigration reform” was bad when George W. Bush fully supported it. Talk a little about the injustices of the various guest worker programs over time and who they have benefited.

DB: There are today work visa programs for agricultural workers (H2A), lower-skilled non-agricultural workers (H2B) and higher-skilled workers like nurses, teachers and high-tech workers (H1B). All of these visas require someone to work in order to stay, so losing a job means having to leave the country. And they all are based on employers recruiting workers in other countries.

Employers like these programs because they all allow them to hire workers at low wages, lower than what they’d have to pay if they hired people already living in the US, whether citizens or immigrants. And by paying low wages and keeping those workers insecure, they also put them into competition with workers already here. For the guest workers, there is a long history of employer abuse, including cheating on the terms they promise workers when they’re hired, and not paying legal wages or providing the legally required conditions. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls them close to slavery.

MK: How are the extraction, agricultural and food processing industries exploiting workers within Mexico and also polluting indigenous lands (ejidos), making it more difficult to exercise the right to stay home?

DB: The book begins with one of the biggest examples – the huge complex of pig farms in the Perote Valley built by Smithfield Foods. The waste from the one million animals raised each year there made the valley almost uninhabitable because of the stink, flies, the pollution of the water table, and disease. Many residents believe that the swine flu of a few years ago began because of the huge concentration of pigs. Big Canadian mining companies, also profiled in the book, have had a similar devastating impact on the environment in other rural indigenous committees. The contamination itself is a factor pushing people to leave. But the way the economy has been reformed in order to “welcome” foreign companies by violating land rights, paying low wages and fighting unions have deepened poverty and displaced many people.

MK: Beginning with corrupt Mexican President Carlos Salinas during the George Herbert Walker Bush presidency, just prior to the ratification of NAFTA under Clinton, Mexico started to move toward becoming part of the neoliberal global juggernaut. I define neoliberalism as creating a world consisting of four groups of people: consumers, low-wage workers, the ultra wealthy and the dispensables. The people profiled in your book appear to fall into the second and fourth categories. Is that right?

DB: The people are displaced in Mexico, and the book describes this process, then become migrants. Their need to work and the poverty of their families forces them to accept low wages, both in Mexico and in the US. The book then describes the way US immigration law is used against them. In many cases, like the union drive at Smithfield Foods in Tarheel, North Carolina, when the immigrants make common cause with workers here and try to organize unions or protest bad wages and conditions, employers then fired them with the cooperation, and sometimes at the orders of, the US government. So in that sense they become dispensable, at least to their employers.

MK: I can’t help but thinking in reading The Right to Stay Home and the last book of yours that we featured, Illegal People, of how slavery treated human beings as commodities, and although there is no longer ownership of people, in some ways there still is through strategically planned control over the economic circumstances of those without power.

DB: Yes, Illegal People, and now The Right to Stay Home, trace the development of the idea of illegality – how we got the idea that a human being could be “illegal.” The roots are clearly in slavery, because the status of a slave, the property of another person, made the slave illegal – the most terrible and brutal form of illegality. But after slavery was formally abolished, these same ideas of inequality and illegality were applied to others – the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and Mexicans. Immigration law has become one important way in which that illegal status is forced on people.

MK: Doesn’t the US economic dependency on Mexican low-wage labor go hand in hand with the anti-union movement in the United States?

DB: Employers want to pay low wages and look for the tools that will keep workers vulnerable and force them to accept these conditions. The displacement of Mexicans by reforms and trade agreements creates a huge number of people who have no alternative to migration, and then to accept work on whatever terms an employer offers. There are so many migrants from Mexico that agriculture, meatpacking and other industries depend on these workers, and employers reap high profits from the low wages they pay. When those workers organize unions to push their wages up, employers fight those efforts out of the simple desire to keep profits high and to control their workforce. That antiunion policy is used by employers against workers in general, not just immigrants, and part of that policy is the effort to keep immigrants and people already here insecure and pit them against each other. The book describes this process, but also describes some of the times when people have been able to successfully resist it.

MK: Given the financial impact of billions of dollars sent back to Mexican families by relatives working in unsafe and low-paying positions in the United States, doesn’t the Mexican government have an incentive not to try and improve the economy for the poor?

DB: Yes it does. And more than that, it uses the remittances sent home to make up for the cuts in the budget for social services in order to make debt payments, which go overwhelmingly to US banks. You could say that the remittances also indirectly subsidize US banks. This is a labor export policy, and other countries are also doing it.

MK: It doesn’t appear that Obama has improved the likelihood of “the right to stay home” in terms of creating living wage jobs in Mexico; his role in getting Mexicans home has been as deporter-in-chief, and he’s breaking records for cracking down on undocumented migrants. Given that Obama is an advocate of neoliberalism, is there much hope that he will do anything to return dignity and economic viability to providing an economic incentive for migrants to stay in their communities?

DB: I think the push for that will come from people themselves. Obama is a supporter of trade agreements and has negotiated several during his administration. This is a bipartisan policy. So to change them, we need a popular movement that is strong enough to enforce other priorities, like renegotiating or simply scrapping NAFTA. The fact that the administration deports 400,000 people a year, fires thousand from their jobs, and then negotiates trade agreements that displace people, forcing them to migrate, makes no sense unless you’re deliberately trying to create a huge number of very vulnerable, low-wage workers. It is an inhuman, brutal policy.

MK: Is the US policy and political “debate” over undocumented workers representative of a larger global injustice: the exploitation of migrant workers on a global scale?

DB: The Right to Stay Home looks at Mexico and the US not because these two countries are exceptional, but because by looking at them closely we can understand a process that is going on all over the world. There are over 213 million people living in countries they weren’t born in, 58 million more than 20 years ago. While about 45 million live in the US, you can see this is something happening on a global scale. So the forces driving it are global, and unfortunately the kinds of policies pushed in the US debate – especially criminalization and guest worker programs – have become global ones also.

Migrants are being forced by global corporate forces and governments to leave Mexico to survive. Read The Right to Stay Home with a contribution of $35 or more to Truthout. Become informed and support corporate-free journalism at the same time. Click here for the book.

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