As immigration again becomes the hottest political topic in America, the
debate has again focused on higher fences and driver's licenses, amnesties
and guest worker programs. As always, a central fact has gone largely
unstated: Corporate globalization and U.S. trade policies have more to do
with how many people cross our borders illegally than U.S. immigration
policy or any potential reform thereof.
The exploitation of less developed countries in the economic globalization
framework known as free trade has resulted in their financial and
environmental impoverishment - both major causes of global overpopulation
and increased migration.
When the focus of the debate is U.S. immigration policy rather than the
nature of immigration, this reality is invisible. But a consensus has begun
to emerge. "At the turn of the millennium," said Marcelo Suarez-Orozco in
his presentation at the 2001 conference "Global shifts: U.S. immigration and
the cultural impact of demographic change," "we are witnessing intense new
worldwide migration and refugee flows...largely structured by the
intensification of globalization." The same year, the Journal of Media and
Culture noted "The privileging of rich migrants over poor ones romanticizes
globalization as corporate progress and ignores the immense human suffering
it entails for the majority of the world's population.. These waves of
internal migration also result in the movement of peoples across national
borders in order to survive."
The Globalization Caucus at the United Nations World Conference Against
Racism noted the "actions of transnational corporations, international
development and financial institutions...[that] heighten inequality among
and within states, increase pressure to migrate, and impede efforts to fight
racism and racial discrimination"
But word has not gotten around. While it's a given that overconsumption and
waste is built in to the model of economic globalization, one seldom hears
it acknowledged that forced migration is also a consequence of the
increasing impoverishment of less developed nations, and therefore also
directly attributable to the role of free-trade style globalization. At
most, you might hear a vague comment that other countries should improve the
lot of their citizens so they won't flee to the U.S. and the riches of the
West, with no analysis of how that improvement should come about or exactly
what is preventing it.
Regardless of what you believe about resource consumption, overpopulation or
immigration in setting the bar for a sustainable society and healthy
environment, the problem is the economic engine of inequity that is driving
both wasteful consumption and forced migration. Tackling the problem at its
source means focusing our energies on a common strategy with a common goal:
Eliminating the growing chasm between the winning and losing ends of the
"free trade" equation. That means turning free trade into fair trade.
"Restricting immigration to the United States won't solve the environmental
problems that force people to move in the first place, and the increasing
numbers of illegal immigrants indicate that restrictions are more
thumb-in-the-dike than viable policy," says Stephen Mills, director of the
Sierra Club's International Program. "The Sierra Club's international
efforts go to the headwaters, promoting environmentally sustainable
livelihoods that keep forests and families healthy, while making polluting
multinational corporations accountable and trade agreements fair."
Or as environmental legend and past Sierra Club President David Brower
succinctly put it as he cast his sharp eye on the fallout from the North
American Free Trade Agreement: "Rather than complaining about immigration
from Mexico, the U.S. could stop causing it."
Andrew Christie is a member of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Committee.