Migration and Corn

Thankfully, immigration reform is progressing in Congress. There are 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who have made invaluable contributions to our culture and economy and deserve the basic rights and dignity that citizenship provides.

Yet some nasty provisions stand out in the compromise Senate legislation - prioritizing highly-skilled English speaking immigrants over working class immigrants and people of color whose families are already here, and blocking the opportunity of citizenship for future "guestworkers", continuing the two-tiered system of discrimination and exploitation that currently exists. Instead, if we examined the root causes of migration, we might actually help - rather than punish - immigrants.

And here "root" cause is not just a metaphor. The seeds of the immigration dynamics we now face are planted on the U.S. side of the border, the kernel of which is corn. Corn is what causes migration and corn is the only way the injustices of immigration, on both sides of the border, will ever be solved.

As the birth nation of just over half of the undocumented immigrants in the United States, Mexico provides a good example. Although agriculture is less than 5% of Mexico's gross domestic product, more than a quarter of Mexican's still make their living as farmers. And most of the poorest of those farmers grow corn. Over 60% of Mexico's cultivated land is planted with corn, most of which are small family plots. In all, 18 million Mexicans, including farmers and their families, rely on corn for their livelihood.

Enter NAFTA in 1994, which opened the U.S.-Mexico border to trade. It's worth noting that before the wealthy nations in the European Union like France and German expanded trade with poorer nations like Portugal and Greece, the wealthier countries first transferred huge sums of money to the poorer nations, to build their infrastructure and help get them to the equal footing necessary for trade to work. Not so with Mexico. The United States (1990 GDP: $23,130 - a.k.a. Goliath) became "equal trading partners" with Mexico (1990 GDP: $6,090 - a.k.a. David).

On top of that, corn production in the United States is heavily subsidized. Under the farm bill, which is up for reauthorization this year, we taxpayers give over $25 billion each year mainly to large, industrial corporate farms. And the more corn the factory farms produce, the more money they make. That means there are big corporations with mounds of corn on their hands that they can sell for cheap because they've already made plenty off the subsidies. Cheap corporate corn floods the Mexican market, drowning local producers.

So what's the result? Imported corn now dominates the Mexican market. For instance, in Mexico - the birthplace of corn - one-out-of-three tortillas is now made with imported maize. An estimated two million family farmers who can't compete with subsidized U.S. corn have been driven from their land. They now have to buy imported corn to feed their families but don't have the income to afford it. Meanwhile, American politicians following the instructions of corporate farm lobbyists start pushing ethanol. Even though the "alternative" fuel actually wastes more energy than it produces, it's made from corn so agribusiness loves it. The new demand for corn drives up prices. And so the price of a tortilla in Mexico has risen 279% since NAFTA. The overall effect impacts not only farmers but all Mexicans, especially the poor. Since NAFTA, poverty in Mexico has increased. As of 2001, over 80% of people in rural Mexico were living in poverty.

So is it any wonder that as more and more U.S. corn flows to Mexico, more and more Mexicans cross the border to the U.S.? And corn is just the beginning. Migration around the world is the direct result of U.S. policies and actions. As immigrant rights leaders in England often chant, "We're here because you were there." Exactly.

Improving immigration policy in the United States is an important start and hopefully the legislation that comes out of Congress will be far kinder towards immigrants than the current draft. But in addition, American farmers and factory workers who have also been devastated by U.S. economic policies must join with immigrant rights leaders to repeal NAFTA and other disastrous trade agreements and remove bloated corporate subsidies from the farm bill. And, as military occupation of Iraq goes hand-in-hand with economic occupation of the global south, the United States must start spending far more money on foreign aid and assistance than border enforcement and war. Maybe then we could start producing an abundance of fairness and justice on both sides of the border, rather than broken families, ravaged communities and corn.

Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.

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