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Free Trade of Goods and People? The Macro Context of Mexico-US Migration


Photo via Migrationpolicy.org

Migration is never an isolated phenomenon; it is always situated within a larger macro political-economic framework. Migration rates from Mexico to the US within the last 20 years must be examined within the context of the political-economic relationship between Mexico and the US from the late 1980s to the present. Although there has been a high demand for low wage migrant labor within the US, especially in the dairy industry, migration cannot solely be explained by the demand for labor in the destination country. Migratory trends are equally propelled by the political, social, and economic situation in the emitter country.

In the early 1980s Mexico was faced with an economic crisis due to a proliferation of state spending. In order to resolve this crisis, in 1986 Mexico’s president at the time, Miguel de la Madrid, signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which opened up Mexico’s border to foreign in-vestment and international trade. This was Mexico’s first of many subsequent initiatives to open up its borders by reducing tariffs in order to become involved in the international market. In addition to the reduction of tariffs, state-owned businesses were privatized.

All of these alterations to Mexico’s economy served as preparation for the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which officially opened up borders for trade among the US, Canada, and Mexico. The implementation of NAFTA resulted in Mexico’s specialization in export production, which led to the development of the manufacturing industry, and growth in Mexico’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the growth in manufacturing disproportionately benefited the northern states. Furthermore, tariff reductions led to a higher demand for skilled labor. As a result, wages only increased significantly for skilled rather than unskilled labor.

With the focus on export production in the manufacturing sector, which led to disproportionate growth and wage gains in Mexico, other sectors, such as agriculture, experienced much less growth. Prior to the implementation of NAFTA, in 1992, Mexican president, Carlos Salinas implemented agrarian reform, which had a detrimental impact on small-scale subsistence farmers. As a result of the Mexican Revolution, in the 1930s all peasant land had been redistributed, creating what became known as “ejidos,” which were collectively shared by local community members with the understanding that the land could not be sold or rented. However, under Salinas’ agrarian reform measures, these lands were privatized in order to make the land more productive and “neoliberalize” the countryside.

In response to this agrarian re-form in Chiapas, Mexico a rural agricultural state in southeastern Mexico, a group of indigenous farmers organized the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, and engaged in a violent rebel-lion on January 1, 1994, the day of NAFTA’s official implementation. Under the terms of NAFTA, subsidies for small-scale subsistence (ejido) farming were reduced and were given to large-scale grain producing corporations. In addition, subsidies on US agricultural imports were maintained, which subsequently flooded Mexico’s market with cheap agriculture goods from the US. Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult for small-scale farmers to compete with the cheap mass-produced agricultural products from the US, especially corn. This disruption of the economic viability and livelihood of subsistence farming on ejido lands has caused depeasantization within several of Mexico’s agricultural regions and left these communities highly impoverished.

These detrimental effects of the economic restructuring under NAFTA, including uneven growth, high wage differentials, and depeasantization, have left many families (especially in rural areas) in search of additional sources of income in order to maintain their livelihoods. As a result, migration has become an increasingly viable option for many communities and families in Mexico. The drastic augmentation of migration rates from Mexico to the US following the implementation of NAFTA exemplifies the strong relation between economic restructuring and migration patterns. The graph represents the increase in Mexican immigration in the US between 1990 and 2014.

Furthermore, a large portion of the migrants who came to the US after the implementation of NAFTA have originated from agricultural states. The state of Vera-cruz, also located in southeastern Mexico, has experienced a huge increase in out-migration. Before the implementation of GATT in 1986, only 5 percent of the males age 15 or over in Veracruz had migrated to the US. However, after the implementation of GATT and especially after the privatization of ejido land in 1992, as well as after the first round of formal tariff eliminations in 1998, migration rates skyrocketed in various communities through-out Veracruz. By 2000 roughly 25 percent of the males from the agrarian town of Santa Rita in Veracruz had migrated to the US.

The economic and agricultural restructuring in Mexico as a result of the terms of NAFTA has facilitated the free trade of goods and has created conditions within Mexico that have necessitated migration; however, negotiations regarding free trade have yet to consider and incorporate the free movement of people into free trade agreements. Despite the drastic increase of Mexican immigrants in the US within the last 20 years, border patrol in the US has only become more vigilant. Although the US has facilitated the economic and agri-cultural restructuring in Mexico, which has served to benefit the US economy, US officials have failed to address and facilitate the resulting migration patterns.

About the author

Julianne DeGuardi