Migrant Justice Means Facing Root Causes and Building Cross-Border Solidarity
By David Bacon
At the end of the just-concluded Summit of (some of) the Americas, President Joe Biden announced a “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection,” claiming that participant countries are “transforming our approach to managing migration in the Americas … [recognizing] the responsibility that impacts on all of our nations.”
Recognizing that the U.S. has some responsibility for addressing the causes of migration is important. But President Biden stopped well short of acknowledging the U.S.’s two centuries of intervention in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, which lies at the root.
Biden pledged $300 million to help U.S. “partners in the region continue to welcome refugees and migrants” augmented by further World Bank loans. World Bank loans are often tied to demands for austerity and reforms to attract corporate investment, and therefore themselves are a cause of poverty and displacement. Aid and loans will not stop the flow of migrants because dealing with the root causes of migration requires fundamental, structural change in the relationship between the U.S. and Latin America.
When we go to the border and listen to people in the migrant camps, or talk with the families here who have members in immigration detention centers, we hear the living experiences of people who have had no alternative to leaving home. Escaping violence, war and poverty, they now find themselves imprisoned, and we have to ask, who is responsible? Where did the violence and poverty come from that forced people to leave home, to cross our border with Mexico, and then to be picked up and incarcerated here?
Overwhelmingly, it has come from the actions of the government of this country, and the wealthy elites it has defended.
It came from two centuries of colonialism, from the announcement of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, when this government said that it had the right to do as it wanted in all of the countries of Latin America. It came from the wars that turned Puerto Rico and the Philippines into direct colonies over a century ago.
It came from more wars and interventions fought to keep in power those who would willingly ensure the wealth and profits of U.S. corporations, and the misery and poverty of the vast majority of their own countries.
Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine Corp general, told the truth about what he did a century ago, writing, “I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”
When people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti tried to change this injustice, the U.S. armed right-wing governments that made war on their own people. Sergio Sosa, a combatiente in Guatamala’s civil war who now heads a workers’ center in Omaha, Nebraska, told me simply, “You sent the guns, and we buried the dead.”
Over 1 million people left El Salvador in the 1980s and an estimated half million crossed the border to the U.S. at that time. How many more hundreds of thousands crossed from Guatemala? How many more after the U.S. helped overthrow Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti? How many from Honduras after Manuel Zelaya was forced from office in 2009, and U.S. officials said nothing while sending arms to the army that used them against Honduran people?
Since 1994, 8 million Mexicans have come as migrants to work in the U.S. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican migrants lived in the U.S. In 2008, the number peaked at 12.67 million. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; another 7 million couldn’t but came nevertheless. Almost 10 percent of the people of Mexico live in the U.S.
The poverty that forced 3 million corn farmers, many of them Indigenous, from Mexico to come here was a product of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), making it impossible for them to grow the maize they domesticated and gave to the world. Archer-Daniels-Midland and Continental Grain Company used NAFTA’s stolen inheritance from Indigenous Oaxacans to take over the Mexican corn market. One of the most important movements in Mexico today is for the right to stay home, the right to an alternative.
What has produced migration from rural parts of Mexico is the same thing that closed factories in the U.S: Green Giant closed its broccoli freezer in Watsonville, California, and 1,000 immigrant Mexican workers lost their jobs when it moved to Irapuato in central Mexico, where the company could pay lower wages.
In a Tijuana factory assembling flat panel televisions for export to the U.S., a woman on the line has to labor for half a day to buy a gallon of milk for her children. Maquiladora workers live in homes made from pallets and other materials cast off by the factories, in barrios with no sewers, running water or electrical lines.
Because our two economies are linked, Mexico suffers when the U.S. economy takes a dive. When recessions hit the U.S., customers stop buying the products made in the maquiladoras, and hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs. Where do they go?
When the U.S. sought to impose the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on El Salvador in 2004, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich told Salvadorans that if they elected a government that wouldn’t go along with CAFTA, the U.S. would cut off the remittances sent by Salvadorans in the U.S. back to their families at home.
Young people, brought from El Salvador as children, joined gangs in Los Angeles so they could survive in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Then they were arrested and deported back to El Salvador, and the gang culture of L.A. took root there, with the drug trade sending cocaine and heroin back to the U.S. barrios and working-class neighborhoods here.
When people arrive at the U.S. border, they are treated as criminals. John Kelly, the dishonest general who advised Donald Trump in the White House, called migration “a crime-terror convergence.”
Yet people coming to the U.S. are part of the labor force that puts vegetables and fruit on the table, cleans the office buildings, and empties the bedpans and takes care of people here when they get old and sick. Turning people into criminals and passing laws saying people can’t work legally makes people vulnerable and forces them into the lowest wages in our economy.
To employers, migration is a labor supply system, and for them it works well because they don’t have to pay for what the system really costs, either in Mexico or in the U.S. Trade policy and immigration policy are inextricably bound up with each other. They’re part of the same system.
NAFTA didn’t just displace Mexicans. It displaced people in the U.S., too. In the last few decades Detroit lost 40 percent of its population as the auto industry left. Today many Ford parts come from Mexico. But the working families who lost those outsourced jobs didn’t disappear. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people began an internal migration within the U.S. larger than the dustbowl displacement of the 1930s.
Knowing where the violence and poverty are coming from, and who is benefitting from this system, is one step toward ending it. But we also have to know what we want in its place. What is our alternative to detention centers and imprisonment? To the hundreds of people who still die at the border every year?
The migrant justice movement has had alternative proposals for many years. One was called the Dignity Campaign. The American Friends Service Committee proposed A New Path. What we want isn’t hard to imagine.
We want an end to mass detention and deportations, and the closing of the detention centers. The militarization of the border has to be reversed, so that it becomes a region of solidarity and friendship between people on both sides. Working should not be a crime for those without papers. Instead, people need real visas that allow them to travel and work, and the right to claim Social Security benefits for the contributions they’ve made over years of labor.
But we also want to deal with the root causes of migration.
U.S. auto companies employ more workers in Mexico now than in the U.S. Every flat-panel TV sold here is made in Mexico or another country. While the workers at General Motors’s Silao factory in Guanajuato, Mexico, recently voted courageously for an independent union and negotiated a new contract with important wage gains, a worker in that factory still earns less in a whole day than a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour.
Decades of trade agreements and economic reforms have created that difference and forced people into poverty. For many, that makes migration involuntary, the only means to survive. We need hearings in Congress that face that history squarely — its impact on both sides of the border.
We have a long history of solidarity with progressive Mexican unions in our own labor movement. That’s a big part of the answer to the problems of NAFTA and free trade that we’ve always advocated. Our unions on each side need to support each other, so that we can lift up workers regardless of the location of their factories.
We also want an end to military intervention, to military aid to right-wing governments, and to U.S. support for the repression of the movements fighting for change.
U.S. companies have been investing in Mexico since the late 1800s. They are not simply going to abandon their investment in Mexico, and the U.S. government is not going to abandon its effort to control the Mexican economy because wages rise. The key elements in how we fight against what this means for workers on both sides of the border is unity and coordinated action.
In both countries copper miners have been on strike against the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Mexico in the last decade. Their unions see solidarity as the answer. So do the United Electrical Workers and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo, and my union, Communications Workers of America, as well as the Sindicato de Telefonistas de la República Mexicana, and others.
If you think this isn’t possible or just a dream, remember that a decade after Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. (That same year, Congress put the family preference immigration system into law — the only pro-immigrant legislation we’ve had for 100 years.)
That was no gift. A civil rights movement made Congress pass that law. When that law was passed we had no detention centers like the ones that imprison migrants today. There were no walls on our border with Mexico, and no one died crossing it. There is nothing permanent or unchangeable about these institutions of oppression. We have changed our world before, and a people’s movement can do it again.