Many Americans have been recoiling in horror from the cruelty inflicted on families at our border and in detention centers all over the country. Stealing children of all ages from their parents with no plan for how and when to reunite them is contrary to everything our nation is supposed to stand for. Listening to the anguish of scared and heartbroken children is shocking and painful.
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Americans of all political persuasions have been stunned — reacting with outrage and anger at the atrocious human rights violations. We must continue to demand an end to this abuse right now.
But it is also important to deepen the conversation and demand major policy changes so that people are not forced out of their communities because of trade and economic policies that are exported to countries to benefit agribusiness and other global corporations. If we don’t act swiftly to change U.S. policies on a range of issues—from climate change to trade, the violence and brutality will continue to increase.
Opening Borders For Big Business But Not For People Turned Out Badly
It’s a cruel and ironic fact that the same immigrants some Americans blame for crossing the border are only coming here because of the effects of policies that were lobbied for by both political parties like so called free trade. Why would a parent leave their home and their support networks of family and friends to come to a new country in the first place? Instead of speculating, let’s start by looking at what the North American Free Trade Agreement did to the corn industry in Mexico as an example.
When NAFTA went into effect, a lot of cheap corn from the United States flooded Mexico’s market. (By the way, this same policy also devastated many small and middle sized farmers in the U.S.) Peasant farmers were driven from their land into urban areas where they had no means of making a living.
Elaine, a woman from Morelos, Mexico, explained in a Marketplace interview that this sudden influx made it impossible for her family to sustain their small farm. “It was more expensive to grow our own corn than to buy it from the U.S.,” she said.
Food & Water Watch’s own Wenonah Hauter has been warning the world about this dynamic for years. In her revelatory book, “Foodopoly,” she writes of trade policies like NAFTA:
“These trade agreements were also promoted as a strategy for addressing poverty in the developing world. Pro-free trade advocates cite the benefits for farmers in these countries. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Growing crops for exports not only results in less food production for domestic consumption; it also often results in the removal of peasant farmers from their small landholdings by large agribusiness interests, so that large acreages of land can be cultivated for export crops.”
The so-called experts who championed these free trade agreements promised rosy outcomes, minimized the economic dislocation and assumed that illusory broad-based benefits would be sufficient to protect Mexican farmers (and workers in all three countries). In addition, NAFTA required countries to weaken safety net programs for farmers in all three countries, making the impact of a flood of cheap U.S. corn exports to Mexico even more devastating. Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute observed, “Displaced from their lands, farmers have been forced to eke a miserable livelihood in cities where they form the core of cheap labor for the sweatshops.”
The meat industry also benefited. Not only did factory farms benefit from the cheap grain, dangerous slaughter facilities owned by companies like Tyson employed immigrants without green cards at low wage and in dangerous jobs. If they complained, they were turned in and deported.
Americans have remained mostly unaware of this effect on the real lives of rural families in Mexico and the complicity of American corporations that need cheap labor. U.S. agribusinesses and allied farm groups have touted increased exports under pro-industry trade deals, with little understanding or regard for the economic destruction faced by Mexican farm families. It is cognitive dissonance like that which gets in the way of many seeing the reasons why immigrants are anxious to relocate here.
What Have We Learned And How Can We Responsibly Change Course?
NAFTA is just the tip of the iceberg. Corporate-driven trade deals have been justified by false promises that the benefits would be shared widely and would outweigh any minor economic downsides. Critics at the time knew that was a hoax designed to line the pockets of agribusinesses who controlled and profited from the global flow of farm products. These trade deals have long-reaching impacts. Real human misery, conflict, and the ensuing atrocity we are seeing today are some of their many ripple effects.
This particular dynamic and the United States’ unique responsibility for it is one of the many reasons that we have to put an end to Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, reunite these children with their families and end all of their detentions, and reinforce the fact that seeking asylum in the United States is not illegal. We must replace badly designed trade deals with new trade agreements that put people, communities, workers and the environment first. Instead, the Trump administration is promising big agribusinesses even more giveaways in NAFTA renegotiations that will redouble the destructive impacts on farm families and workers.
We will be side by side with activists and organizers to call for all of this at the June 30th #FamiliesBelongTogether actions all over the country. We need you with us. Will you be there?