The election of Donald Trump introduced border security and illegal Mexican immigration as crucial national issues. The Republican candidate garnered substantial political support for his promises to build a wall along the Mexico-U.S. border, deport Mexicans in the U.S. on a massive scale, and slap tariffs on cheap imported manufactured goods believed responsible for the loss of American jobs. Most critics focus on the xenophobic, illiberal, nature of these policy pronouncements. However, Trump’s critics have said little about the role of the U.S., including powerful U.S. economic interests, in contributing to the very immigration problem that the incoming Trump claims it will solve. Blowback, often used to refer to the impact of various U.S. misadventures in foreign policy, refers to the unwanted/negative result of an action or series of actions. The massive Mexican immigration to the U.S. with its attendant political consequences, is a troubling case of blowback—in large part the consequence of past U.S. actions.
Escaping Poverty and Violence
Immigration to the U.S. has been driven by a combination of poverty and high levels of violence in Mexico. While the U.S. did not create these problems (which have been present since the Spanish conquest), it arguably did a great deal to contribute to their increase, thereby intensifying the flow of migrants seeking a better life north of the border. Between 1980 and 2006, the Mexican immigrant population in the U.S. increased from 2 million to over 11 million while Mexican immigrants account for the largest unauthorized immigrant group (at 6.2 million) in the United States. Today Mexican migrants constitute 28% of the U.S. foreign-born population.
The flow of immigrants has been stimulated by the country’s post 1980 economic difficulties. Mexico experienced two major economic crises after 1980: the debt crisis of the early 1980s and the peso (financial crisis) of 1995. According to Economic Commission for Latin America figures, both of these crises produced substantial increases in poverty, which increased from 34 to 39% of households between 1984 and 1989 and from 36 to 53 % between 1994 to 1996. Poverty remains substantial in Mexico; it rose after 2006 to 41.2% in 2014. The Mexicans seeking entry to the United States are overwhelmingly poor, and over the last decade have increasingly come from Mexico’s poorest southern and southeastern states. It is estimated that Mexicans working in the U.S. sent home almost $25bn in remittances in 2015, with most of this money going to support the most basic needs of the poorest Mexicans.
U.S. Role in Mexico’s Poverty
While declining commodity prices and political difficulties played a role in Mexico’s economic difficulties, the sharp increases in poverty are also linked to the country’s market liberalization reforms. As I explain in my 2001 book, Washington played an important role in Mexico’s economic post 1985 restructuring. That role involved a form of policy intervention in which officials in U.S. dominated multilateral lending institutions (the World Bank and the IMF) gave strong encouragement to deep economic restructuring measures through supporting the emergence a core of enthusiastic market reformers among Mexico’s leadership. Under authoritarian rule at the time, Mexico’s political leadership proceeded with a market liberalization process that had scant concern for the social repercussions.
Market liberalization was particularly harmful to poor rural Mexicans. Market liberalizing reforms dictated the elimination of guaranteed agricultural prices, subsidized fertilizer prices, marketing boards, and the state bank responsible for providing credit to poor communal farmers. While the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provided for a fifteen year phased in reduction in tariffs on corn, the commodity produced by the country’s poorest farmers, the Mexican government opened the doors to the importation corn between 1996 and 1999. It did so at the behest of agribusinesses, many owned by U.S. business interests including, Cargill and ADM (Archer Daniels Midland Company), which are responsible for approximately two-thirds of all U.S. corn exports. The result was a massive importation of highly subsidized corn from the United States, the loss of over a million rural jobs, and a sharp deterioration in rural pay and worsening working conditions. Large numbers of empoverished Mexicans migrated north.
Meanwhile, trade liberalization resulted in increasing bankruptcies in the country’s largely uncompetitive industrial sector while privatization spurred a drop in public sector employment. While Mexico’s almost exclusive reliance on export processing zones (or maquilas) as employment generating strategy was an explicit policy choice make by the country’s leadership, it was also a choice encouraged and facilitated by U.S. policy and U.S. multinational corporations. A law in 1963 lowered tariffs for products assembled outside the U.S. from components of U.S. origin, when re-exported to that country. U.S. firms faced with rising price competition quickly grasped the opportunity to lower labor costs by moving to Mexico. The signing of NAFTA, which lowered tariffs further, strengthened the incentives of companies to move south of the border. In the end, however, maquila firms, which have enhanced the profits of U.S. companies have not provided sufficient employment opportunities for Mexicans (with the exception of the auto industry, now targeted by Trump). In general, the employment that they have provided is low-paid and precarious. Much of it left for China in 2001.
U.S. Drug Policy and Increased Violence
A rising level of criminal violence is another factor propelling the flow of Mexican migrants to the U.S. The rapid expansion of the drug trade in Mexico as elsewhere in Latin America began in the late 1970s, in response to a spike in consumption occasioned by the demand generated by returning Vietnam War veterans who had become addicted while in Asia. The successful U.S. supported campaign against the drug cartels in Colombia, combined with the signing of NAFTA, triggered the shift of the locus of drug trafficking to Mexico. The U.S. strategy of tackling the drug trade through eliminating the supply of drugs from Latin American countries (including Mexico), rather than by dealing with the demand for consumption emanating from the U.S, has been instrumental in increasing the level of drug-related violence. U.S. “certification,” ensures country co-operation with U.S. anti-narcotics efforts by threatening the withdrawal of assistance and loans should country efforts be found wanting. In this way, U.S. policy has encouraged countries to agree to the increased use of the military and police against producers and traffickers. The Merida Initiative, the U.S. anti-drug plan for Mexico, involved the provision of 1.5 billion $US to Mexico between 2008 and 2011, to among other things, train the Mexican military and police. The U.S. supported military crackdown of drug production and trafficking carried out under President Felipe Calderón’s (2006-2012) cost the country some 50,000 lives.
The combined impact of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and violence, drive Mexican immigration to the U.S. Mexicans migrating to the U.S. would no doubt prefer to stay in their own country if conditions were different—as they mostly did before 1980. The best way to tackle the problem of the flow of Mexicans across the U.S.-Mexican border is to tackle the underlying causes. To do this the U.S. will have to acknowledge is complicity in this unfortunate state of affairs.