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U.S. Policies Created the Immigration Problem. Scapegoating Immigrants Makes It Worse.

Posted on Apr 9, 2017


Gregory Bull / AP

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Donald Trump railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during his presidential campaign. But he failed to mention how the measure forced vast swaths of Mexico’s farm population off their land and into the United States by flooding the country with cheap, subsidized, U.S. agricultural imports.

It was a curious deletion, given Trump’s immigrant-demonizing pledge to “build a [southern U.S. border] wall and make Mexico pay for it.” For Trump, the point of the wall is to stop the flow of supposedly dangerous and criminal Latinos into the U.S.

Another thing Trump left out is that the southern U.S. border wall is not new. It has been under construction since the Bill Clinton administration, thanks in no small part to NAFTA. As Todd Miller, author of “Border Patrol Nation,” noted last summer in Mother Jones, border barriers already exist:

In 1994 … the call for more hardened, militarized borders … came from US officials who anticipated the displacement of millions of Mexicans after the implementation of NAFTA. …


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The expectations of those officials proved well justified. The ensuing upheavals in Mexico … were like the aftermath of a war or natural disaster. Small farmers couldn’t compete against highly subsidized US agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Mexican small-business owners were bankrupted by the likes of [Wal-Mart], Sam’s Club, and other corporate powers. Mining by foreign companies extended across vast swaths of Mexico, causing territorial conflicts and poisoning the land. The unprecedented and desperate migration that followed came up against what might be considered the other side of the Clinton doctrine of open trade: walls, increased border agents, increased patrolling, and new surveillance technologies meant to cut off traditional crossing spots in urban areas like El Paso, San Diego, Brownsville, and Nogales. …

Over the next 20 years, that border apparatus would expand immensely in terms of personnel, resources, and geographic reach, but the central strategy of the 1990s (“Prevention Through Deterrence”) remained the same. The ever-increasing border policing and militarization funneled desperate migrants into remote locations like the Arizona desert, where temperatures can soar to 120 degrees in the summer.

Trump’s nationalist indifference to Washington’s responsibility for generating the migration the nation frets over is commonplace in the U.S. When tens of thousands of Central American children piled up on the U.S. southern border in the summer of 2014, I heard numerous white “native” Americans say that their hearts went out to the “unaccompanied minors” trying to reach the U.S. “But,” the narrative went, “it’s not our problem. We’ve got nothing to do with it. It’s not our job to fix it.”

Such reflexive disassociation omits Uncle Sam’s critical role in the devastation of lives and communities abroad. Latino immigration to the U.S. has everything to do with Washington, D.C., and NAFTA is just one part of how. The 2005 U.S.-led Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has brought the same misery NAFTA spread in Mexico to campesino communities in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

The neoliberal “free trade” deals (really, investor rights) that Trump lambasted for costing “forgotten Americans” their jobs have undermined the livelihoods of Central Americans, helping push them to attempt ever more dangerous crossings into the wealthy superpower up north.

READ: Bill Clinton Laid the Groundwork for Trump’s Ugly Immigration Policies

It isn’t just about agricultural exports. In Mexico and Central America, as in the world over, U.S.-led “free trade” agreements have resulted in government enterprises being privatized, the deregulation of corporations and steep cuts in social spending and environmental oversight. “Add to this the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and the drastic U.S.-led militarization of the War on Drugs with accompanying violence,” historian William Blum noted nearly three years ago, and you have a “perfect storm of suffering followed by the attempt to escape from suffering.”

The racist, mass-incarcerationist U.S. drug war is also part of what generates the gang carnage that compels so many Mexicans and Central Americans to take desperate measures to escape—or at least to get their children out.

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