It is time that Americans faced the truth about “illegal” immigrants from Latin America. That over ten million are now living in the United States is not due to their nefarious scheming to enter the country to live as parasites and criminals. Contrary to Donald Trump’s ravings, the vast majority of undocumented migrants are neither “rapists” who “are bringing drugs,” nor members of the brutal MS-13 gang. They are, rather, driven here by circumstances largely created by U.S. and Latin American elites, whose policies, depending on the time and place, have fueled civil wars, economic dislocation, and social pathologies that have forced people to move in search of security and work.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should be scrapped, but not because, as Trump asserts, it has been a bad deal for the U. S. It should go because, when implemented in 1994, Mexico was not, as its elites advertised, economically prepared to compete with the U. S. and Canada. The weakness of parts of Mexico’s economy, such as agriculture, had serious consequences for many sectors of the population, especially those on the land. While some American workers lost jobs because their bosses decided to outsource production to low-wage Mexican plants, the flood of cheap American corn destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican small farmers and drove them off the land into the cities, where industry failed to absorb them, or north of the border to find work. Many now harvest our crops, mow our lawns, and fix our roofs.
NAFTA is a shining example of capitalist hypocrisy. Supposedly based on the idea of free trade, it allows free movement across borders of all commodities except that of labor. Unlike the European Union, which allows people to sell their ability to work anywhere they wish within its borders, workers in the NAFTA zone have no such right. Unemployed or low-paid Mexicans are not free to follow the market to the north. They must enter it illegally, exposing them to exploitation and transforming them into political pariahs. Why workers under NAFTA are not allowed to move freely is almost never discussed in the US media. Might endemic racism and political expediency have something to do with it?
Recently, the Trump administration announced the pending deportation of 200,000 Salvadorans and 50,000 Haitians, many of whom were granted Temporary Protected Status following earthquakes in 2001 and 2010, respectively. The administration claims, wrongly, that the crises in these countries have passed. Indeed, the crises are deepening. The earthquakes are only one of a series of catastrophes that have afflicted those societies. For most of the twentieth century, both were ruled by U.S. backed dictatorships and were periodically wracked by civil wars in which the U.S. supported avaricious oligarchs against forces of real reform. In each case the oligarchies survived, the people remained impoverished and oppressed, and for many the only way out is flight.
Flight is also the logical response of millions of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans, who, like their Salvadoran, Haitian, and Mexican counterparts, wish to escape conditions of extreme inequality, civil conflict, and rampant violent crime. Since these countries have long been subject to U.S. political and economic tutelage, we share the historic responsibility for their condition. Trump’s hollow claim that he does not wish to deport the Dreamers, the 700,000 young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, because they are “innocent” of any crime implies that their parents were guilty of one. That might be technically correct, but the reality, of course is more complex. Faced by economic, political, and social conditions they had no say in creating, for many migration to the U.S. is the only rational option.
It is a tragedy of enormous proportions that Americans have allowed Trump to exploit and promote a deep strain of xenophobia that threatens to undermine the foundations of our republic. A masterful demagogue, he successfully camouflages the social realities of the U.S. and our southern neighbors under a mountain of lies, while encouraging fear of the “other” as a means of mobilizing support against his opponents. He and his enablers are playing an old game that is poisonous to democracy. It is incumbent on us to combat their lies with truth, to organize against them, and to drive them from power.