Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-US Immigration in the Global Age

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Quite often we hear it said that people migrate to the US looking for a better life. This sentiment not only de-politicizes the issue of immigration, it takes it out of context. Wars and counter-insurgency campaigns in Latin America have certainly forced millions of people north, but since most of the region, minus Colombia, is not engaged in any serious armed conflict why are Latin Americans coming north?

In Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age, Kari Lydersen provides readers with one of the dominant factors for northern migration in recent decades…globalization. For Lydersen, the IMF imposed structural adjustment policies and the neoliberal economic programs, which have swept across most of Latin America, are the major cause of migration. Over the past several years the author traveled throughout the Americas reporting n the impact of these economic policies, with the hopes of putting a human face on those most affected. The book is divided into three main sections; Latin America, the Border, and the US.

In the first section Lydersen gives examples of current conflicts created by economic policies that have been imposed on communities throughout Latin America. She looks at the dollarization of Ecuador, Coke workers in Colombia, the Bolivian popular movement, fishing communities in Oaxaca, and indigenous communities in the Lacandon forest of Chiapas, Mexico. In each case people have been displaced by economic policies that involved very specific corporations. Whether it is Bechtel in Bolivia, Pemex in Oaxaca or Coca Cola in Colombia, each example highlights the over-riding messages of the book…corporate globalization negatively impacts most people and is at the root of contemporary migration from Latin America.

One example has to do with the indigenous communities in the Lacandon forest in Mexico. For years US-based environmental groups like Conservation International have been denouncing the influx of people into the Chiapas rain forests. They claim that the indigenous communities are the main source of deforestation in that state. The author contests that what the Mexican government has been doing is using groups like Conservation International as an attempt to remove indigenous groups, particularly those tied to the Zapatistas, in order to develop the region for eco-tourism. To underscore this point Lydersen tells readers about what the Isuzu corporation did in 2002. In order for Isuzu to gain access to the rain forest for its annual auto race (the Isuzu Challenge), the company gave cell phones and “satellite systems to aid forest rangers and local authorities in searching, locating and preventing tree theft.” Here Isuzu was employing an increasingly common tactic known as Greenwashing. Companies can cause all the environmental damage they want but if they promote themselves as environmentally friendly they can win over public opinion. As I write this review, the indigenous communities of Montes Azules in the Lacandon forest are being displaced due to economic interests.

The second section of the book moves to the US/Mexican border. Here the author looks at the impact of the maquiladora industry on the Mexican side and anti-immigration realities on the US side of the border. Many of the people displaced in Central America and southern Mexico have ended up in the industrial zones of Mexico’s northern border. Lydersen provides griping testimony from people who work in sweatshops, where labor and environmental conditions have taken it´s toll. She also addresses in one chapter the sobering story about hundreds of Mexican women who have been murdered in recent years in border cities like Juarez.

The third section of the book looks at the growing population of Latin Americans in cities across the US, from the Immokalee workers in Florida to meatpackers in Nebraska, and mushroom pickers in Illinois. These are mostly undocumented workers , men and women who in most cases do the work that most of us in the US won´t do. Many of us have heard of the Immokalee workers in Florida, because of their high profile campaign against Taco Bell, but fewer have heard about the mushroom pickers in Illinois. In the same way that Taco Bell is one of the largest users of Florida picked tomatoes, Dominos Pizza is the primary recipient of mushrooms picked by migrant workers in Illinois. Ironically, as Out of the Sea and Into the Fire demonstrates, the wealth that is generated by these migrant workers, often ends up in the hands of the same transnational corporations that lobby for the so-called “free trade agreements,” the very agreements that force Latin American to leave their communities to come to the US “seeking a better life.”

Lydersen closes the book with 3 personal profiles of Latin American now residing in the US. The following comments from Alexy Lanza, a Honduran immigrant, underscores why I think this is an important book to read, especially for those involved in campaigns against corporate


“When immigrants come to this country, we have two choices. We can lose our identity or we can make it stronger. You lose it when you see all the wealth here and you think I want to have a big car, a nice house, this and that. You start forgetting little by little where you came from. But you have to remember that all of these riches are made from the poverty of our countries, from what was taken from us. When you realize that, then your roots become strong. My roots were strong already. But they truly became strong here.”

Kari Lydersen, Out of the Sea and Into the Fire: Latin American-U.S. Immigration in the Global Age, (Common Courage Press, 2005).

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