Trade and Immigration

How NAFTA Drives Immigration

  • Like many developing countries, Mexico’s economy is heavily dependent upon agriculture.
  • NAFTA required Mexico to end the majority of its subsidies and credit programs for small farmers.
  • NAFTA also required Mexico to eliminate tariffs on agricultural imports from the United States.  This resulted in a flood of cheap grains into Mexican markets.
  • Imports fromthe U.S. are cheaper than food grown in Mexico because U.S. staple crops receive billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer subsidies, allowing large agribusiness exporters to sell grains on the international market for less than what it actually costs farmers to grow them.
  • The flood of imports has forced over one million Mexian corn farmers out of business since NAFTA took effect.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, at the end of 2004, there were 6.8 million unemployed agricultural workers in Mexico.
  • The poverty rate in rural areas has climbed to an outrageous 81 percent.  This has led to an exodus from rural areas into cities and border towns, creating intense competition for jobs and driving down wages for everyone.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Mexican-born people living in the United States increased by more than 80% between 1990 and 2000.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans continue to migrate to the U.S. each year, with more than two-thirds coming from corn-producing regions.

Things Working Americans Should Know about Immigration

  • NO LEGAL ENTRY:  For most Mexicans displaced by NAFTA, there is no legal way to migrate into the United States.  Most people who legally immigrate do so through a family petition.  A U.S. citizen or lawful resident may petition for a foreign spouse or child to be allowed entry — typically a multi-year process with many financial hurdles.  For those displaced Mexican farmers who do not have a very close family member already living in the United States and able to file a petition on their behalf, there is virtually no legal way to immigrate.
  • RISKING LIVES:  People who feel they have no other choice but to enter the U.S. illegally are literally risking their lives to do so.  Since NAFTA was enacted, at least 3,000 Mexicans have died trying to cross the border.  Some have asphyxiated in shipping containers.  Others have drowned.  Many more have died of thirst after becoming lost in the desert.
  • PAYING TAXES:  Undocumented immigrants living in the United States pay the same real estate, sales and excise taxes as everyone else.  Most also pay income taxes and contribute to Social Security, even though they have little chance of ever collecting Social Security.  On average, immigrants pay more per capita in taxes than they receive in government services.
  • IMPACT ON WAGES:  Businesses know that undocumented workers have relatively few options for employment and are less able to “rock the boat.”  When unscrupulous employers hire undocumented workers in order to take advantage of their marginalized status, this drives down wages for everyone.  U.S. Labor Department studies show that following the 1986 amnesty for undocumented immigrants, real wages for those workers increased dramatically, exerting an upward pressure on wages for all.

Expanding Worker Solidarity

Increased immigration can cause economic and social strains in the United States, but blaming immigrants for these problems would be both morally wrong and counterproductive.  As one rural Mexican preparing to cross the border in the U.S. recently said, “I would rather risk dying in this desert than endure the shame of watching my children suffer from hunger in their own land.”

Finding solutions to the question of undocumented immigration will not be easy, and reasonable people will certainly have differences of opinion, but from a working person’s perspective the approach taken on this issue should be based on principles of worker solidarity.

  • We need to broaden our opposition to free trade agreements from simply preventing the offshoring of American jobs to also defeating trade provisions that hurt farmers and workers in developing countries.
  • We need to question politicians who urge us to “get tough on immigrants,” yet continue to support trade policies that increase forced migration.
  • We need to demand that everyone working in the United States receives the same workplace protections and has the same right to organize, so that employers can no longer exploit workers just because of their immigrant status.

ORFTC Resources

Download ORFTC’s factsheet on “Free Trade and Forced Migration” (Word)

Download ORFTC’s template newsletter article on “Free Trade and Forced Migration” (Word)

Download ORFTC’s slide show presentation on “Free Trade and Forced Migration” (Power Point)
Useful Websites

American Friends Service Committee
AFSC carries out service, development, social justice and peace programs throughout the world. Resources: Organizing toolkits, “Know Your Rights” materials, videos and legislative updates.

Association of Immigration Lawyers of America
The AILA is a national association of more than 10,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law.  Resources: Legal research, legislative updates, “Know Your Rights” materials, media resources.

Detention Watch Network
DWN is a coalition that works to reform the U.S. detention and deportation system to become more fair and humane.  Resources: News and information on detentions and deportations.

Interfaith Workers Justice
IWJ is a network of people of faith that works to improve wages, benefits and conditions for workers, and give a voice especially to low-wage workers.  Resources: Study guide on immigration for faith communities.

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights works to defend and expand the rights of all immigrants and refugees, regardless of immigration status.  Resources: Organizing toolkits, videos and reports on immigrant rights.

National Day Labor Organizing Network
The mission of NDLON is to improve the lives of day laborers in the United States.  Resources: Reports and legislative resources on day laborers.

Witness for Peace
WFP supports peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practicies which contribute to poverty and oppresssion.  Resources: Organizing toolkits on Roots of Migration.
Immigrant Rights Organizations in Oregon

Oregon’s statewide immigrant rights coalition offers information and analysis on proposed state and federal legislation related to immigrants and opportunities for immediate response and actions.  This is the first stop for organizations and/or individuals interested in getting involved.  Contact: 503-982-0243 ext 213;

Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition
PIRC is a coalition of Portland-area immigrant rights, labor, faith and solidarity organizations working to promote justice for immigrants in Portland communities and throughout the nation.  Contact: 503-780-3672.

Center for Intercultural Organizing
CIO is organizing a statewide campaign to defeate ballot initiatives that target immigrant and refugee communities.  Contact: 503-287-4117;

Rural Organizing Project
ROP’s Immigration Fairness Network provides trainings on how to host community discussions on immigration, particularly in rural communities in Oregon.  Contact: 503-543-8417;

Portland Jobs with Justice
Portland JwJ has hosted a series of forums on labor and immigration that highlight the root causes of immigration, along with supporting the PIRC’s organizing efforts and legal observers in support of day laborers.  Contact: 503-236-5573,

The mission of VOZ is to empower immigrant workers, particularly day laborers, to gain control over their working conditions and to exercise their collective power to address the issues they face.  Contact:503-233-6787;

Oregon New Sanctuary Movement
The ONSM is an interfaith coalition of over twenty different faith communities, called by faith to respond actively and publicly to the suffering of immigrants.  Contact: 503-550-3510;

American Friends Service Committee
AFSC’s Project Voice provides “Know Your Rights” workshops to immigrants based on a broad framework of international human rights, establishes groups of Human Rights Promotores (Promoters) and advocates for public policy that supports immigrants and addresses their concerns.  Contact: 503-230-9427,

Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United is Oregon’s largest Latino organization.  PCUN’s fundamental goal is to empower farm workers to understand and take action against systemic exploitation and all of its effects.  Tune in to 96.3 FM Radio Movimiento in and around Woodburn. Contact: 503-982-0243,

UNETE is a farm worker and immigrant rights organization based in Medford.  Contact: 541-245-1625