Trade policy reform needed to curtail Mexican immigration


Author: Emma Lodes

A peasant woman in Oaxaca, Mexico bends over her colorful, intricate weaving. Dusk falls over the small, deserted cornfield, empty since her husband left for the United States. She hasn’t heard from him and doesn’t know if he’s alive or dead. In the last few years, she has seen the towns around her shrink as the men leave to find work. She is left behind to get by with her weaving and selling of handicrafts to tourists.

The peasant woman could be any one of the hundreds of Oaxacan women left behind by husbands migrating north. In the U.S., anti-immigration activists and politicians aggressively strive to quell immigration to the U.S., but they do not pay enough attention to the root of the problem: many Mexicans, especially Oaxacan farmers, can’t make enough money on the open market from their crops at home so they are forced to migrate North. In fact, the U.S. is contributing to high rates of immigration through trade agreements with Mexico that exacerbate poverty in small Mexican communities. If the United States intends to reduce the unrelenting waves of immigration, the Obama administration must re-negotiate its trade agreements with Mexico.

The state of Oaxaca is one of the areas most adversely affected by trade agreements with the U.S. Oaxaca has a population of 3.8 million, and according to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) 76 percent of them live in poverty as subsistence farmers (farmers who grow food solely to provide for themselves and their family), cultivating mostly corn. With Mexico’s trade open to the U.S., subsidized corn imports from the U.S. and industrial agriculture practices have rendered Mexican subsistence farming obsolete, forcing farmers to migrate in search of better jobs.

But it wasn’t always that way. In Oaxaca, most indigenous farm communities had operated successfully as self sufficient cooperatives for hundreds of years. They farmed small, sustainable, organic and diverse plots. Then, twenty years ago, their way of life shattered: the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA opened up trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and removed tariffs from agricultural products (such as Oaxaca’s corn) so they could be traded on a “North American scale.” The thing is, much of Mexico does not have the infrastructure to enable Mexican farmers to trade on such a grand scale. The price of corn used to be regulated by the government, now it is regulated by volatile market prices.

To increase their crop yield, Oaxacan farmers began using pesticides on their crops and became dependent on buying the pesticides. They also abandoned diverse, native corn and started using a single genetically modified strand of corn (monoculture). But with the market open, corn from the U.S. came flowing in to Mexico, and even with the pesticides and the GMOs, Mexican corn prices couldn’t compete with U.S. corn prices. The playing field is far from level because U.S. corn is subsidized by our wealthier government and the Mexican government doesn’t have the economic resources to do so. That’s why approximately 250,000 Oaxacans migrate to northern Mexico or the U.S. every year.

The Mexican federal government has the final say when it comes to economic development, and it champions NAFTA and other neoliberal, free-market, anti-labor policies. But the Oaxacan state government is more sympathetic to impoverished farmers and the “right not to migrate” movement in Oaxaca. In order to give Mexicans an alternative to migration, the Mexican government and international community need to pay more attention to the root of immigration issues: economic issues at home, in places like Oaxaca.

The “right not to migrate” campaign is a human rights campaign. Crossing the border to the U.S. is a deadly risk; according to, investigators have found hidden graves of migrants killed within Mexico. And that’s before they even got to the “promised land” of the U.S. If migrants can withstand the routine human rights abuses at the border (rape, beatings, etc.) or the potentially fatal trip across the desert into the country, the U.S. financial crisis and its significant residue could prevent them from securing employment.

Meanwhile, their families at home are kept in the dark and work to make ends meet while they hear no news of their loved ones. According to the Oaxacan government, hundreds of Oaxacans have disappeared, their whereabouts unknown.

If the United States wants to suppress immigration from Mexico into the U.S., building a fence on the border is not going to do the job. The U.S. must re-negotiate NAFTA, and change its trade agreements with Mexico so that they are more fair.

And the next time CNN, or any other news source, runs an alarmist headline on the immigration issue, one important aspect to take into consideration is that Mexicans in the U.S. aren’t just immigrants. They’re migrants who have come, possibly involuntarily, from a home and a family and land in Mexico. Oaxacans and other Mexicans shouldn’t be forced to search for opportunities and jobs in the United States; they deserve opportunities and jobs at home.

Emma Lodes is an undeclared first-year. She can be reached at Do you have an opinion on this issue? If so, keep the conversation going and comment on this article at or write a Letter to the Editor.

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