Today, hundreds of thousands of people – including Sierra Club members from coast to coast – are stopping work, joining immigrant-led rallies, and resisting Trump’s deportation machine. Led by immigrant workers, today our broad movement marches together to make clear we will not sit quietly as immigrant families are torn apart.
For many people who face deportation, this is not the first time they’ve been forced to leave home. Many had to leave family behind in making a painful decision to come to the U.S. in the first place.
This raises a critical question often missing when politicians discuss immigration: Why? Why do people decide to leave their family and friends, embark on a life-threatening journey, and start over in a country that may treat them as second-class citizens?
Among the many answers is an underreported fact: Unfair trade deals have contributed to the economic instability that has forced many immigrants to leave home. That’s the conclusion of a new factsheet the Sierra Club is releasing today with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and the Center for Popular Democracy – partners who fight for the rights of immigrant workers.
Corporate deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have eliminated jobs and destabilized communities not just in the U.S. and Canada, but also in Mexico and Central America. And thanks to handouts to corporate polluters, these trade deals also contribute to climate change. These impacts, along with other root causes, have fed increasing insecurity, displacement, and violence, forcing many to leave their homes.
I’m marching today because no one should be forced to leave their home and family, whether by unfair trade, climate change, or a knock at the door from Trump’s immigration agents.
We need new approaches to immigration and trade that keep communities and families intact, that support rather than destroy livelihoods, and that allow people to stay, if they wish, in whatever place they call home.
NAFTA and Forced Migration
NAFTA – the 1994 trade deal between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. – largely succeeded in its core objective: boosting the profits of multinational corporations. NAFTA gave corporations – but not humans – the freedom to cross borders, allowing them to seek out the lowest wages, the weakest labor and environmental standards, and new opportunities to consolidate power.
For millions of workers and family farmers throughout North America, this contributed to job loss, wage stagnation, polluted communities, and displacement. In Mexico, many who lost their livelihoods under NAFTA faced few options beyond leaving home and trying to start over in the U.S. Consider these facts, detailed in our new factsheet:
- NAFTA enabled U.S. agribusiness giants to effectively “dump” corn on the Mexican market, contributing to a 66 percent drop in price for Mexico’s corn farmers. During the 1990s, at least one million farmers in Mexico were driven out of corn production. In NAFTA’s first five years, while Mexico’s imports of U.S. corn doubled, extreme poverty spread to more than half of Mexico’s rural population.
- Manufacturing jobs initially grew in Mexico under NAFTA, as corporations laid off U.S. workers and moved to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages and environmental standards. But by 2001 those same corporations were already leaving Mexico in search of still-cheaper labor in countries like China, which joined the World Trade Organization that year. The “race to the bottom” of the corporate trade model did not serve workers in Mexico any more than their laid-off counterparts in Michigan.
- While wages in Mexico have remained stagnant under NAFTA, the cost of living has soared. The price of tortillas, for example, more than tripled in NAFTA’s first decade, in part because the deal helped a few large agribusinesses solidify their monopoly power.
- Whether they lost their farm, job, or ability to make ends meet, many people in Mexico had to confront a difficult reality: Staying at home was no longer a viable option. Millions headed north. In NAFTA’s first seven years, immigration from Mexico to the U.S. more than doubled.
CAFTA and Forced Migration
CAFTA largely replicated the NAFTA model, expanding it to Central America in 2006. The evidence suggests that the deal has exacerbated economic instability, doing more to inflame than to reduce the violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala that is forcing people to flee northward:
- As in Mexico, family farmers in these three countries endured a doubling of agricultural imports from U.S. agribusinesses in CAFTA’s first decade. In each country, rural poverty persisted or grew.
- And as with Mexico, the promise of increased manufacturing jobs evaporated almost immediately. In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, exports to the U.S. of apparel products – CAFTA’s supposed gift to Central America – actually dropped 23 percent in the deal’s first year, as corporations sought cheaper labor elsewhere.
- A multi-year drought, likely exacerbated by climate change, has made matters worse by devastating harvests in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In a United Nations survey of the three countries, families repeatedly cited the drought as a reason that their family members had decided to leave home and migrate north. While climate change contributes to forced migration, corporate trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA contribute to climate change, by encouraging increased dependency on climate-polluting industrial agriculture and fossil fuels.
Time to Transform Trade and Immigration
To stop tearing apart families and communities across the U.S., we urgently need a moratorium on deportations. Meanwhile, to stop fueling the instability that forces people from home, we urgently need a fundamentally new approach to trade – one that supports workers, healthy communities, and climate justice in all countries.
To achieve this vision of trade justice built on solidarity, we must reject the xenophobic approach of Donald Trump, which is rooted in border walls, attacks on immigrants, and climate change denial.
We can take steps toward our vision by expanding our intersectional movement, recognizing that the struggles to transform trade, tackle climate change, and support immigrants cannot be separated. We move forward, as in the streets today, by marching together.