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NAFTA's Role in Fueling Illegal Immigration to US

Syndicated Radio Newsmagazine
--Weekly Summary --

NAFTA Played Critical Role in Fueling Illegal Immigration to U.S.

Interview with Jeff Faux, founder of the Economic Policy Institute, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:

Immigration has emerged as one of the most contentious issues in U.S. politics this year. A punitive bill has passed the House of Representatives, which would criminalize undocumented workers and citizens who help them, and fund construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The threat of arrest and deportation prompted millions of people to march for immigrant rights in cities around the country, demanding a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.

The Senate continues to debate legislation that differs substantially from the House bill. A proposed measure would expel undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. less than two years, create a guest worker program for those here between two and five years, and provide a path to citizenship for those who have been in the country more than five years. But in the debate on Capitol Hill and in the media, one issue is just about never raised, except by the immigrants themselves. That is the U.S role in creating an economic crisis in Mexico, where 75 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. come from.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jeff Faux, founder of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, and now a distinguished fellow there. He explains how the North American Free Trade Agreement destabilized and weakened Mexico's economy, exacerbating cross border immigration and why more than fences are needed to address the problem.

JEFF FAUX: Before the North American Free Trade Agreement, illegal immigration from Mexico was less than half of what it is now, and if you go back 20 years, before the early 1980s, it was just a trickle. Mexico at that time was poor, but their economy was relatively stable. What happened as a result of the U.S. helping bail out Mexico in the early 1980s -- they had a crisis with their currency at that time -- Mexico started to deregulate, to privatize, and its growth in the 1980s slowed down. And you saw illegal immigration start to accelerate. And then with NAFTA, illegal immigration really took off from Mexico. Why? A number of reasons, but the most important is that the treaty forced Mexico to open its borders to subsidized and cheap U.S. corn and wheat, and wheat from Canada as well. This meant that one million to two million farmers could no longer live on their land. They could not compete with the subsidized big agribusiness corn that was coming in from the U.S. So, they were driven off their land wi

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jeff Faux, if we do look at it, what do you think could help solve the problem?

JEFF FAUX: The essential problem here is that we made an agreement, a treaty with Mexico, the so-called free trade agreement, that did not take into consideration what would happen to the people. So, it was an agreement that allowed trade and money to flow across the border, but did not provide for the social protections that every economy has for its people. It didn’t provide for minimum wages; it didn’t provide for free and open union elections; it didn’t provide for unemployment compensation, things of that sort. And it didn’t provide for a program for Mexico that would stimulate economic growth in a way that provided jobs and raised incomes for Mexicans. During the debate over NAFTA, we were promised by both Republicans and Democrats, by the way, that Mexico would grow and illegal immigration would diminish. Instead, illegal immigration took off in Mexico.

If you compare the free trade agreement that we made with Mexico with the way that the European Union organized the economic integration of western Europe back in the ’50s and ’60s, you can see what I’m talking about. In Europe, when they first began this idea of integrating the market, people in France, and Germany and Holland and the richer countries, were frightened at the notion that people from Greece and Spain and Portugal and Ireland would flood their economies with workers looking for work. So they provided, in addition to the trade and money crossing the border, they provided help for those countries, and they required, as a condition of being in the European Union, labor laws and laws that allowed the kind of growth that they got in Portugal and Spain and places like that, allowed that growth to be shared broadly in the population, and created jobs that had decent incomes, and low and behold, people did not move, people did not migrate from those countries.

So, it’s an extraordinary lesson, if people have job opportunities -- not job opportunities equal to the U.S. -- but at least opportunities for people to get a job, have a decent wage, be able to support a family, people would rather stay where they are. And we hear that in interviews with migrants. But we did not take that into consideration. What essentially we did was make a treaty with Mexico that provided benefits for the rich on both sides of the border, and the poor, especially the Mexican poor workers, were the people who paid the price.

Call Economic Policy Institute at (202) 775-8810 or visit the group's website at Faux's book, "Global Class War," has recently been published by John Wiley & Sons.


Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 40 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending June 2, 2006. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.



For an email subscription of "Between The Lines Q&A," which features a weekly "Between The Lines" inter-view transcript, email

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