U.S. “free trade” agreements have destroyed the livelihoods of millions in Mexico and Central America, with many of those displaced funding no option but to make the dangerous journey north to seek new livelihoods in the United States. With rural economies devastated and new factory jobs related to the trade deals not paying enough to support families, U.S. trade policies have become a push factor in immigration. Many of the immigrants Trump now attacks have experienced some of the worst damage caused by our current trade policy.
President Trump scapegoats Latin American immigrants for the economic insecurity facing many Americans with his racist attacks on Mexicans and Central Americans xenophobic obsession with building a wall along our southern border. But U.S. trade policies that harm working people in the United States that also have left many in Latin America with no options but migration as they struggle to feed and care for their families.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) crushed small farmers in Mexico, and the Central America nations displacing millions in rural communities. Many of the small farmers in these nations whose livelihoods were crushed by floods of subsidized U.S. exports sought factory work. But the pacts, without meaningful labor standards, made it easy for multinational corporations to transform U.S. middle class manufacturing jobs to sweatshop jobs by outsourcing them to Mexico and Central America.
The humanitarian crises wrought by U.S. trade and economic policies in the Americas requires that we replace those policies, not wall ourselves off from people these policies have displaced. Instead of unfairly targeting immigrants, policymakers should replace failed trade deals so that they raise living standards in all countries.
NAFTA devastated Mexico’s rural economy and destroyed many small- and medium-sized businesses in Mexico. With millions of Mexicans displaced from rural communities competing for the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs that relocated from the United States under NAFTA, many found no work. For many who did, wages remained low. These factors generated enormous pressures for working-age Mexicans to attempt the dangerous journey to the United States. In NAFTA’s first seven years, Mexican migration to the United States more than doubled, surging 108 percent.
The George W. Bush administration then negotiated an expansion of the failed NAFTA model with five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic called CAFTA. CAFTA’s proponents promised it would create economic opportunities, reduce gang- and drug-related violence in Central America and thus diminish the flow of migration to the United States. The opposite occurred. Rural communities were gutted as exports of subsidized U.S. agricultural products wiped out local farmers. The displaced sought short-lived apparel assembly jobs – many of which then vanished with production shifting to Vietnam and other countries. Gang- and drug-related violence in Central America has reached record highs, and forced migration from the region has surged. The waves of unaccompanied Central American children that have arrived at the U.S. southern border spotlighted the social and economic devastation of the region after a decade of CAFTA.