On Friday, a presentation at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) by Noemí Peregrino González of Borderlinks and Celeste Escobar of the Mexico Solidarity Network explored the myths and realities of immigration from Mexico. The presentation was conducted by Noemi Peregrino Gonzalez, a resident of the United States-Mexico border region, and was translated by Celeste Escobar. Around twenty-five students listened to Gonzalez speak about her experiences living and working on the border and the larger context in which immigration from Mexico to the United States takes place.
Gonzalez began by explaining that migration is a part of human history and is so important that it was made a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She conducted an activity with audience members to show that, with the exception of indigenous people, the United States is a nation of immigrants and that at some point in history families made the decision to migrate to the United States. She made a distinction between natural migration when one chooses to move and is able to move freely without papers and violent or forced immigration when one either has to move because they have no choice or in which people displace others in the process. Gonzalez also reminded the audience that the United States has a history of forced migration with slavery and the genocide of the indigenous population on the land claimed by the United States. Forced migration is what the United States is experiencing from Mexico, with Mexicans crossing in dangerous deserts and scaling border fences because they have no options due to economic policies imposed on their country at the behest of multinational corporations and the fact that there are no legal channels for migration into the United States.
Gonzalez explained that while there has always been migration from Mexico to the United States, it has increased since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA was made by two advanced, industrialized countries (the United States and Canada) and Mexico, a “third world” and poor nation, and as such favors the United States and the interests of multinational corporations. Despite these inequities, Mexico went along with the agreement out of a combination of corruption and the willingness of the country’s president at the time to “sell out” Mexico in addition to promises of improvements in Mexico’s economic situation. The agreement promised Mexico improved living standards, economic sustainability, a guarantee that Mexican wealth and resources would stay in Mexico, and an end to migration from Mexico to the United States. After twelve years, none of these promises have been accomplished and migration has tripled due to the displacement of farmers after the Mexican government agreed to modify its constitution to rewrite land ownership rules. Farmers were further hurt when protective tariffs to guard against the dumping of United States corn onto the Mexican market were abolished immediately rather than gradually as promised. These policies have forced farmers to the boarder region where they have to find work in low paying, dangerous, and environmentally destructive factories known as maquilladoras that produce for export. In the town where Gonzalez lives, she explained that out of 83 maquiladoras, only five pay $75 per week and the rest pay below that amount, resulting in widespread poverty. Moreover, workers are prevented from unionizing by a combination of multinational corporations who threaten to move jobs to China if border region workers “start acting like Zapatistas” and by company unions that represent the interests of the factories’ owners.
While there are difficulties in organizing in Mexico, Gonzalez and Escobar explained that there are many people in Mexico resisting the impact of NAFTA and neoliberal globalization. They cited the Zapatista movement, the popular movement in Oaxaca, and the organizing by students and peasants as examples, but stressed the importance of similar organizing taking place on the United States’ side of the border. Gonzalez likened immigration to a tree, arguing that it does not work to trim it and ignore the roots if you want to stop it from growing, just as United States immigration policy will not be effective if it ignores the root causes of immigration. The enforcement only solutions advocated by bills such as HR 4437 and the construction of more fences will only result in continued immigration and more deaths along the border according to Gonzalez. Escobar stressed that Republican politicians are using anti-immigration propaganda as a means of scape-goating and winning elections even as immigrants make a variety of contributions to the United States, including paying taxes and social security. She explained that people should vote for politicians that do not advocate for punitive immigration policies, although the suggestion will be difficult for those in Grand Rapids and Michigan given that Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow has voted for the further militarization of the border (her Republican challenger is also anti-immigrant), area Representatives Vern Ehlers and Pete Hoekstra supported HR 4437 and recent measures militarizing the border, and Democratic candidate for governor Jennifer Granholm (along with Dick DeVos) has supported the militarization of the border. In light of these votes, a better strategy would be to take Escobar’s advice to get involved in local organizations such as GVSU’s Students Against Sweatshops or those listed in the Progressive Directory of Western Michigan and work on issues of immigration and neoliberalism from outside the political system.