Twenty years ago, in January 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect. The agreement was proposed by then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas to help the Mexican economy. The theory was that free trade with the United States would stimulate the Mexican economy, and, as a result, many experts thought the amount of illegal immigrants passing into the United States would decrease. They were wrong. NAFTA did not quite end up working the way Salinas dreamed it would.
From the 1930s up until the 1980s, Mexican officials had tried to keep the country out of foreign trade. The country had placed restrictions on foreign investment and controlled the exchange rate to encourage domestic industrial growth. Unfortunately, in the 1980s Mexico saw a steep rise in inflation and a debt crisis in 1982 that would make the Mexican government unable to meet the country’s foreign debt obligations.
Mexican officials soon began to reverse the country’s stance on foreign trade to help the economy. But the country was already in a state of degradation. The standard of living of the Mexican people declined throughout the ‘80s and continued to decline throughout the ‘90s and 2000s. Corruption ran rampant through local Mexican governments and slowly worked its way up to the higher positions. Money was scarce, and the people in power wanted it.
By 2008, Mexico’s exports made up 31 percent of the country’s GDP — a 10 percent increase from 1988. Over 80 percent of Mexico’s exports went directly to the United States. While this rise in exports as a percentage GDP seems good on paper, the Mexican people are still struggling now more than ever, and that’s due to several factors effected by NAFTA.
When NAFTA first came into effect, it cost less for Mexicans to import corn from the United States than it cost for them to produce their own. The United States increased corn exports by 400 percent when NAFTA originally started. United States farmers could afford this export increase because their corn production was subsidized heavily. For 10 years, Mexicans enjoyed cheap imports of corn, wheat, meat and other staples from the United States. Mexican farmers could not compete with the prices of imports coming from the United States, and many closed their farms. By the early 2000s, corn import dependency of Mexicans had grown from 8 percent to 32 percent.
In 2007, corn in the United States began to be produced for other less-than-tasty reasons. Forty percent of United States corn production went into producing ethanol. The price of the rest of the corn crops increased twofold. Some other export prices doubled or even tripled. Along with the rising prices of imports, Mexico was also affected by the global economic instability happening around that time. The country couldn’t afford imports anymore and had no working farms set up.
Also happening alongside the great Mexican food dependency withdrawal was the great Mexican factory development. Many border towns saw an increase in U.S.-owned factories. Named the “maquiladora,” the manufacturing operations in the free trade zones of Mexico helped put many Mexicans back to work. Because of NAFTA, the factories are able to import material and equipment duty-free and tariff-free. They then export the products back to the United States.
In an age when we as Americans all feel bad for factory workers in China and other countries that are the subject of the most press, our neighbors are working in similar conditions with less attention drawn to them. These maquiladoras have to compete against the factories in China and Indonesia, so compensation is abysmal. Mexican women work for one-sixth of the United States’ hourly rate. The Mexican minimum wage set by the government is hardly enough to sustain a family.
On top of the lack of proper compensation, the environmental implications of the factories are frightening. In 1983, Mexico and the United States signed the La Paz Agreement, which requires hazardous waste created by United States corporations to be transported back to the United States for disposal. Unsurprisingly, this agreement is rarely enforced. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, only 91 of the approximately 600 maquiladoras located along the Texas-Mexico border returned any waste since 1987. So where does it all go?
Some maquiladoras illegally dispose the factories’ waste into Mexico’s rivers or deserts. Water in the towns where the maquiladoras are located is undrinkable. Some water is so bad that Mexicans can’t use it for bathing or other necessary life uses. Some water causes lasting genetic mutations and not only affects the adults working, but also affects their children.
So why should Americans care about all of the effects NAFTA has had on Mexico? Now, in 2014, 55 million Mexicans are estimated to live in poverty. That’s about half of the Mexican population. With little opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty in Mexico, Mexicans are continuing to migrate illegally into the United States. Roughly one-quarter of the Mexican population lives in the Mexican countryside, but 44 percent of illegal immigrants are these countryside dwellers. With the agricultural economy crushed, Mexicans not living near maquiladora-filled border towns hardly have any way to make a living.
As with most problems, there’s always a root cause. As a country, we can’t continue to use deportation and brutal border control as tools to stop Mexican immigration. Until we reach out to the Mexican government with a holistic approach to fixing their economic and social issues, we will continue to see Mexicans traveling to the United States searching for a better life.
The damage inflicted on the Mexican people by NAFTA can’t be reversed. But I think it’s our responsibility to help the Mexican people out of it. We signed the agreement 20 years ago, which ultimately led to a serious dip in the standard of living in their country. We can’t sit idly by, criminalizing the Mexicans who flee to our country for a better life, when we were part of the reason why their lives were ruined. No, I’m not talking about moving more of our factories to Mexico and ultimately ruining the ecology of their rivers and streams.
If we set up a program where Mexicans could come to work in the United States on a temporary citizenship where they have to pay taxes but also have the right to minimum wages, I think that both nations would benefit. More Mexicans will have money to send home and stimulate the Mexican economy, and more Americans won’t have to spend tax money on deportation and border control.
The United States will always be attached to Mexico. It’s time we stopped ignoring the problems and reached out a helping hand to our neighbors.
Helen Nowotnik is a communications major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected]