Migrant Justice Means Facing Root Causes and Building Cross-Border Solidarity

At the end of the just-concluded Summit of (some of) the Americas, President Joe Biden announced a “Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection,” claiming that participant countries are “transforming our approach to managing migration in the Americas … [recognizing] the responsibility that impacts on all of our nations.”

Recognizing that the U.S. is responsible for addressing the causes and consequences of migration is important. But President Biden stopped well short of acknowledging the U.S.’s two centuries of intervention in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, which lies at the root.

Biden pledged $300 million to help U.S. “partners in the region continue to welcome refugees and migrants” augmented by further World Bank loans. Many World Bank loans are tied to the demands for austerity, reforms to attract corporate investments, and are therefore a source of poverty and displacement. Because the root causes of migration are not addressed by aid and loans, it is impossible to stop them from coming to the United States.

Listening to people at the border, or talking with families who have relatives in immigration detention centres, allows us to hear the lived experiences of people who had no other choice than to leave home. They fled violence, war, poverty, and now they are in prison. Who is to blame? What is the source of violence and poverty that compelled people to leave their homeland, to cross our border to Mexico, and then to be arrested and incarcerated here?

It has been overwhelmingly caused by the actions of the government and wealthy elites that it has defended.

Banner 3

It was two centuries of colonialism. It started with the Monroe Doctrine announcement in 1823. This government declared that it had the right in all Latin American countries to do what it pleased. It was the wars that made Puerto Rico and the Philippines direct colonies more than a century ago.

It was the result of more wars and interventions to keep in power those who would allow the wealth and profits of U.S. corporates to be guaranteed, as well as the misery and poverty of the vast majority their country’s people.

Smedley Butler, a decorated Marine Corp general, told the truth about what he did a century ago, writing, “I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism…. I made Mexico and Tampico safer for American oil interests in 1914. I made Haiti and Cuba a decent country for the National City Bank boys to make their revenue. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”

People from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Haiti tried to change the injustice by attempting to reform it. The U.S. armed rightwing governments that made war upon their own people. Sergio Sosa, a Combatiente in Guatamala’s civil war who now heads a workers’ center in Omaha, Nebraska, told me simply, “You sent the guns, and we buried the dead.”

In the 1980s, El Salvador saw over 1 million people flee its territory. half millionAt that time, thousands of people had crossed the border into the U.S. How many other hundreds of thousands crossed the border from Guatemala to the U.S.? How many more people crossed from Guatemala after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in Haiti by the U.S.? How many more from Honduras were there after Manuel Zelaya was removed from office in 2009. U.S. officials did not say anything while sending arms to the army which used them against Honduran civilians.

8 million Mexicans have migrated to the United States as migrants since 1994. In 1990, the U.S. had 4.5 million Mexican migrants. In 2008, that number was 4.5 million. peaked at 12.67 million. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; another 7 million couldn’t but came nevertheless. Nearly 10 percent of Mexicans live in the U.S.

The poverty that forced 3 million corn farmersMany of these Indigenous people travelled from Mexico to arrive here. They did so because of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. It made it impossible for them grow the maize they raised and gave to all the world. Archer-Daniels-Midland and Continental Grain Company used NAFTA’s stolen inheritance from Indigenous Oaxacans to take over the Mexican corn market. Today, Mexico is a country that is promoting the right to be at home and to have an alternative.

What has prompted migration from rural Mexico is the same thing as what closed American factories: Green Giant shut down its Watsonville, California broccoli freezer, and 1,000 Mexican immigrants closed it down. lost their jobsIt moved to Irapuato, central Mexico, so that the company could pay lower wages.

A Tijuana factory is assembling flat panel TVs for export to the U.S. and a woman working on the line must work for half a daily to buy her children a gallon milk. Maquiladora workers are forced to live in homes made of pallets and other materials. They also live in barrios that lack running water, sewers, or electrical lines.

Mexico is impacted by the U.S.’s economic decline because of their close relationship. Recessions in the U.S. cause customers to stop buying products made in maquiladoras and hundreds of thousands of workers to lose their jobs. Where are they going?

When the U.S. sought to impose the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) on El Salvador in 2004, then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich told Salvadorans that if they elected a government that wouldn’t go along with CAFTA, the U.S. would cut off the remittances sent by Salvadorans in the U.S. back to their families at home.

Young people, brought from El Salvador as children, joined gangs in Los Angeles so they could survive in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. They were then deported back to El Salvador and arrested. The gang culture of Los Angeles grew from there. The drug trade sent heroin and cocaine back to working-class neighborhoods and barrios in the U.S.

People who arrive at the U.S. borders are treated as criminals. John Kelly, the dishonest general who advised Donald Trump in the White House, called migration “a crime-terror convergence.”

People who come to the U.S. to work are part of the labor force that puts food on the table, cleans offices, emptys the pans, and cares for the sick and elderly. Turning people into criminals and passing laws saying people can’t work legally makes people vulnerable and forces them into the lowest wages in our economy.

To employers, migration is a labor supply system, and for them it works well because they don’t have to pay for what the system really costs, either in Mexico or in the U.S. Trade policy and immigration policy are inextricably bound up with each other. They’re part of the same system.

NAFTA didn’t just displace Mexicans. People in the U.S. were also displaced by NAFTA. As the auto industry left, Detroit lost 40% of its population over the past few decades. Today many Ford parts come from Mexico. But the working families who lost those outsourced jobs didn’t disappear. Instead, hundreds of thousands of people started an internal migration within the U.S. that was larger than the 1930s dustbowl displacement.

One step towards ending poverty and violence is knowing where it comes from. But, we must also know what we want. What is the alternative to detention and imprisonment? To the hundreds of people who still cross the border each year?

For many years, the migrant justice movement had other proposals. One was the Dignity Campaign. American Friends Service Committee proposed A New Path. What we want isn’t hard to imagine.

We want to see an end of mass detention and deportations and the closure of the detention centres. It is essential to reverse the militarization of our border so that it becomes a place of friendship and solidarity between people from both sides. Without papers, working should not be considered a crime. Instead, people need real visas that allow them to travel and work, and the right to claim Social Security benefits for the contributions they’ve made over years of labor.

We also want to address the root causes of migration.

U.S. car companies have more Mexican workers now than they do in the U.S. Flat-panel TVs sold here are made in Mexico or other countries. While the workers at General Motors’s Silao factory in Guanajuato, Mexico, recently voted courageously for an independent union and negotiated a new contract with important wage gains, a worker in that factory still earns less in a whole day than a U.S. autoworker earns in an hour.

Trade agreements and economic reforms over the past decade have made a difference and forced millions into poverty. Many believe that this makes migration involuntary and the only way to live. We need hearings in Congress that face that history squarely — its impact on both sides of the border.

We have a long history supporting progressive Mexican unions in our labor movement. That’s a big part of the answer to the problems of NAFTA and free trade that we’ve always advocated. So that we can lift up workers, regardless of their location, both the unions on either side must support each other.

We also demand an end to military intervention, military aid to right-wing governments and U.S. support to the repression for movements fighting for change.

Since the late 1800s, U.S. companies have been making investments in Mexico. They are not going to stop investing in Mexico. The U.S. government will not abandon its efforts to control the Mexican economy as wages rise. Unity and coordinated action are the key elements to how we fight against what it means for workers on both side of the border.

Both countries have seen copper miners go on strike against Grupo Mexico, a Mexican conglomerate, in the past decade. Their unions see solidarity in the solution. So do the United Electrical Workers and the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo, and my union, Communications Workers of America, as well as the Sindicato de Telefonistas de la República Mexicana, and others.

If you think this isn’t possible or just a dream, remember that a decade after Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. (That same year, Congress put the family preference immigration system into law — the only pro-immigrant legislation we’ve had for 100 years.)

It was not a gift. Congress passed this law as a result of a civil rights movement. We didn’t have detention centers that were as solitary as the ones used to hold migrants today when that law was passed. No one was ever killed crossing the border with Mexico. There were no walls. These institutions of oppression are not permanent or indestructible. We have changed our world before, and a people’s movement can do it again.