Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Of all the issues surrounding Arizona's anti-immigration law perhaps the greatest source of frustration for me is watching the irrefutable stupidity emerging from the "What-part-of-illegal-don't-you-understand?" crowd. Dominated by xenophobia from the far right and by political conservatives (both Democratic and Republican), it's clear that this group is not only intellectually clueless about the forces that drive immigration, but they have no moral compass.

Put more simply, they're a bunch of idiots. Here's just one reason why.

Market Driven Immigration
Back in the late 1980s President George H.W. Bush got together with Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canada's Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, to propose what would become the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Based on the assumption that markets work best when government is pushed out of the way the United States, Mexico, and Canada proceeded to create NAFTA (signed 1992, ratified 1993, implemented 1994).

In the process they also happened to craft one of the most heavily regulated and rule based treaties in diplomatic history.

The important point here is how NAFTA and it's "market-based" rules would work to help push millions of Mexicans into the United States after it was signed into law. Yeah, that's right, NAFTA - which was sold to America as an immigration reducing treaty - actually increases Mexico's migrants into the United States.

Of course, while the negotiations and regulations surrounding the treaty were industry driven, it would also be government enforced. Adam Smith's invisible hand, it would appear, isn't as strong as free marketeers would have you believe.

The important point here is how NAFTA and it's "market-based" rules would work to help push millions of Mexicans into the United States after it was signed into law. 

In an attempt to apply market rules to Mexico President Salinas de Gortari initiated a market-based program that would "privatize" Mexico's publicly held (ejido) land, where more than 20 million poverty-stricken Mexicans reside. But there was a hitch. This could only be accomplished by pushing Mexico's smaller, inefficient farmers off the land. But where would they go? 

Market Fairytopians Get It Wrong (again)
Incredibly enough, none of the free market geniuses negotiating NAFTA gave this much thought. In their world the magic of market would take Mexico's new landless peasants, and turn them into productive capitalists -- in Mexico, of course. Like much of the rhetoric and ignorance coming out of the current immigration-bashing crowd, our NAFTA free marketeers simply didn't understand how the real world works.

Instead of magical market fairies endowing millions of Mexico's landless peasants with education, skills, and a pocket full of money (from the sale of public land that suddenly became theirs) they became free market losers because of Mexico's embrace of market capitalism (to the extent that you can call NAFTA market-based). Like America's failed Homesteaders in the 19th century, and the crushed Dust Bowlers of the 20th century, Mexico's landless peasants would do what they needed to do under dire circumstances.

Migration in the face of daunting circumstances - however you label it - is an historical and human constant.

But wait, it gets worse.

Small Mexican farmers, who decided to stick it out and try to make a living competing in NAFTA's make believe market world, would come to feel the back side of Adam Smith's invisible hand too. In addition to failing to provide any kind of assistance or training to Mexico's rural poor, NAFTA's Founding Fathers didn't do anything of significance about the billions of dollars in market supports in the U.S. and Canada. Under NAFTA America's farmers would continue to receive water subsidies, infrastructure supports, tax write-offs, price supports, and other farm subsidies that have helped make them the most productive farmers in the world.

Mexico, which doesn't have the resources to play the subsidy game, would accept these conditions during NAFTA negotiations. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari simply caved in to U.S. demands in the area of agriculture subsidies. Desperate to get a treaty that would elevate him in the eyes of the world, he accepted verbal assurances (genuine, no doubt) to do something about subsidies later.

As should be expected, those assurances didn't count for much.

Moctezuma's Revenge, Neutered by Price Supports
In 2002 - the 10th Anniversary of NAFTA's signing - the U.S. Congress passed, and free marketeer President George W. Bush signed, a farm bill that would increase U.S. farm subsidies by $180 billion over a ten year period. Because Mexico doesn't have the resources to play the subsidy game they could do little but stand on the side of the road, barking at NAFTA's moving wheels.

To be sure, efforts have been made to make small producers market competitive (see NAFTA and the Campesinos). But with hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, and other market supports, in the U.S. Mexico's producers simply can't compete.

For example, America's heavily subsidized corn producers under price Mexico's corn farmers on a regular basis. Today Mexico is a net importer of corn, a commodity that is native to Mexico's heartland. Moctezuma's Revenge, if there ever was such a thing, has effectively been neutered by the God of Profit and price supports.

In practical terms, with similar patterns emerging in other commodity products, this means that Mexico's market-based initiatives in the countryside have had only a marginal impact on creating market entrepreneurs. Without the subsidies, infrastructure supports, lack of credit, tax write-offs, etc. it's impossible to expect the tens of millions of impoverished farmers who live in Mexico's countryside to prosper under NAFTA. Who could have expected more?

Oh, yeah. The same anti-immigrant zealots who push for punitive measures against Mexico's "illegal" immigrants are cut from the same clothe that gave us NAFTA's free market fairytopians. They're mostly republican, conservative democrats (it was Bill Clinton who signed NAFTA into law), and profoundly ignorant when it comes to understanding how modern markets really work.

More simply, you can't craft an industry driven, subsidy-friendly trade agreement - which leaves tens of millions of impoverished Mexicans exposed - and then expect the "magic of the market" to make things whole.

These are the dynamics that the anti-immigration zealots in the U.S. ignore.

Final Comments
The issues surrounding immigration in America are far deeper than being "illegal" in the eyes of the law. We have law breakers around us every day - jaywalkers, speeders, crossing a double yellow line, etc.  Yet, we don't demand draconian-like punishment from the authorities. Intuitively we understand that there is a difference between those who prey on society and every day law breakers trying to make their way through life.

Those who support Arizona's anti-immigration laws need to think these things through, and at another level. Unfortunately, they don't.

I take great pride in pointing to an academic piece I wrote 16 years ago (it's in Spanish). I wrote that NAFTA would not work as promised. In fact, I warned that we would be faced with the grim prospects of increased border tensions when NAFTA failed if we didn't rethink NAFTA. We didn't rethink NAFTA, and NAFTA hasn't worked as promised (which I wrote about here). The results were not only predictable, but are being played out before us now.

Today, just 20 years after celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Americans are prepared to support repressive border programs that are destined to become national monuments to ignorance, race-baiting, and political cowardice. Today's anti-immigrant zealots, who sing the praises of Arizona's border laws, need to quit acting like history's fools, and take a broader approach to understanding why "illegal" immigration from Mexico occurs.

Ignorance drenched in political cowardice is a hard thing to beat. But, as Forrest Gump might say, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Those who support Arizona's draconian approach to immigration need to think these things through a little better. Sadly, history tells us this will not be the case.

- Mark


Joseph said...

Very well written piece Dr. Martinez. NAFTA has been the doom for many Mexican Farmers. They come to this land, because it is supposed to be a symbol of hope, freedon, and equality. Really we are unwelcoming to the strangers. We call them "illegials" and we tolerate them to meet our labor needs, as long as they are quiet. It is now time to stand with our immigrant bothers and sisters and be their voice in this time were there is much political cowardice. Peoples lives are at stake, and until we start to view it that way morally, we will never find resolution. Thanks for writing that piece, and I will message you the article I wrote for Sunday's Californian.

ken said...

You're the idiot! Go spend a week on a ranch that borders Mexico in AZ. We're not talking about the idealized immigrant that wants a better life.... we all do... it's how they are trying to achieve it. THOUSANDs of illegal tromp through these terrified family's lands carrying guns and drugs. They vandalize, murder, litter, etc. (the amount of trash is unbelievable) and destroy property causing serious damage and financial hardship to an already struggling economy. If people want a better life, go through the proper channels, just like we are expected to in ANY other country in the world. You would expect to show your passport in China, or France, right? But, nooooooo, not here in the USA! It's time to shut the borders.... my grandparents came here, legally, only 60 years ago.... how bout yours, DOC?!

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