Trade and Migration

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Immigrant workers in the United States face numerous challenges, including low-paying jobs, discrimination, exploitation, inadequate access to social services, and limited legal rights. Free trade policies exacerbate these problems in several ways by increasing the pressure to migrate and by adversely affecting both immigration law and the political rights of immigrants.

Free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), lead to massive increases in immigration. Under these policies, small businesses, independent farms, and craftspeople are pushed out of markets by multinational corporations and giant agribusinesses. When small businesses close and farmers are driven off their land, unemployment and poverty skyrocket. Because the export-oriented economies sustained by free trade agreements fail to create enough new jobs to replace all those that are eliminated, migration increases as people search for new means of employment. Between 1996 and 2000, as the effects of NAFTA were manifested, the Mexican peso was devalued, land reforms were curbed, and the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the US nearly doubled.

A large surge in immigration such as that often leads to responses in the form of changed immigration law. Such was the case under NAFTA. Beginning in early 1994, the militarization of the US-Mexico border increased. In November 1994, California passed Proposition 187, which denied education and health care to undocumented immigrants and their children. Then, in 1996, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made it more difficult for people to immigrate to the US, while making it far easier for the INS to deport immigrants, even those who are legal permanent residents.

Recent free trade agreements have directly dictated changes in immigration policy, even without substantial congressional input or public debate. The US-Chile and US-Singapore Free Trade Agreements set a dangerous precedent by establishing new immigration policies regarding temporary entry visas embedded in the free trade agreements rather than subject to normal Congressional debate and annual review. If jurisdiction over immigration policy is expanded to other free trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), there could be disastrous effects on immigrants’ rights and working conditions for immigrant and nonimmigrant workers in the US.

Finally, since many immigrants work in low-paying jobs with few benefits or protections, they are often more susceptible than other groups to job insecurity and trade-related job loss. Efforts by immigrant and nonimmigrant workers to bargain collectively for better wages or conditions have been undermined by free trade policies, since employers can threaten to move production overseas where cheap labor is readily available. NAFTA and other recent free trade agreements fail to protect workers against this type of union busting. Furthermore, as job insecurity rises and jobs move to the next cheapest labor source, immigrants are oftentimes unfairly targeted as scapegoats for economic uncertainty. The resulting tension between immigrant and nonimmigrant workers obscures the real problem of free trade and immigration: a model of free trade policies that undermines working conditions and quality of life for immigrant and nonimmigrant working people around the globe.

Free Trade and Immigration: Cause and Effect Council on Hemispheric Affairs, July 18, 2007
Walls, Amnesty and False Choices Foreign Policy in Focus, November 29, 2006
Between unemployment and insecurity in Mexico: NAFTA enters its second decade Carlos Salas, Institute of Labor Studies and El Colegio de Tlaxcala, 2006
NAFTA’s Promise and Reality Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004
The Impact of NAFTA on the U.S. Latino Community and Lessons for Future Trade Agreements Labor Council for Latin American Advancement & Public Citizen, August 16, 2004

Articles & Statements
Boneheaded Economic Policies of U.S. Drives Many Immigrants to our Shores Alternet, July 21, 2010
Trade deals’ effect on U.S. immigration a problem for McCain San Jose Mercury News, July 3, 2008
Standing Up to NAFTA Center for International Policy (CIP), December 18, 2007
Free-trade agreements causing people to leave Mexico Tri-City Herald (WA), October 23, 2007
U.S. Helped Create Migrant Flow National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006
Tricks of the Free Trade Metroactive Newspaper, September 16-22, 2006
National Latino Leaders Urge Congress to Rethink NAFTA-style Trade and Economic Policies September 11, 2006
Feds Fail to See Bigger Picture on Border Ventura County Star, July 26, 2006
Immigrant Surge is Tied to the Failure of NAFTA Star Tribune, April 21, 2006
Supply-and-Demand Solutions San Francisco Chronical, April 9, 2006

Latino Rights Groups Argue Against CAFTA Sun Sentinel, February 15, 2005
Leaders of Major U.S. Latino Organizations Say NAFTA Expansion is Anti-Latino and Damaging to Central America February 8, 2005
Mexicans Who Came North Struggle as Jobs Head South New York Times, October 13, 2004
NAFTA Hurt Latinos, Study Says Houston Chronicle, August 16, 2004
Worker Issues Foremost for Immigrants’ Advocate Houston Chronicle, July 13, 2004
Central American Immigrant Organizations Oppose CAFTA May 27, 2004
Statement on Immigration UNITE
Linking the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Immigration American Friends Service Committee
Why Immigrant Workers Should Care about the FTAA AFL-CIO
FTAA a Gamble Stacked Against Migrant Communities The Polaris Institute, January 2001