If the United States were truly interested in resolving the Mexican immigration issue, it would help its southern neighbor break the chains of dependence. But that’s precisely what it doesn’t want to do.
What’s in a wall? According to the Mexican architecture firm Estudio 3.14, which performed a feasibility study of Donald Trump’s proposed border monolith, the 1,954-mile wall would take some 16 years to build at a cost of $25 billion dollars, plus an additional $2 billion annually in maintenance and upkeep. Although Trump has said that only 1,000 miles of wall would actually need to be built (tacitly admitting from the start that the project will never be complete), construction would still need to extend into remote and mountainous regions, cross national parks and other protected land, and require the massive seizure of private property through eminent domain procedures. All this for something that, as any third grader could tell you, could still be scaled or tunneled under at will.
The irony is not lost on critics that such a gargantuan effort will be undertaken at a time when more Mexicans are leaving the US than coming in: according to a Pew Research Center study, the US experienced a net loss of 140,000 Mexican immigrants between 2009-2014, in large part due to the Great Recession and existing border-control measures. It is hard to escape the conclusion, then, that the wall is not about security at all but – like the travel restrictions from selected majority-Muslim countries – a symbolic gesture designed to stoke xenophobic fears, big-dick posturing in the pursuit of partisan political advantage.
If the United States had wanted to reduce the flow of immigration from Mexico in a lasting way, it could have done so decades ago. In practice, it has done the exact opposite.
They Knew What Was Coming
The roots of America’s recent obsession with the border can be summarized in 5 letters: N-A-F-T-A. In 1993, when a Democratic-majority Congress passed and Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, the president promised it would be a “force for social progress as well as economic growth.” Cheerleaders for the agreement on both sides of the border promised that it would, in short order, catapult Mexico into first-world status. Detractors like Ross Perot, who warned of a “giant sucking sound” of jobs out of the US, were portrayed as outmoded isolationists in a shiny new era of globalism, internationalism and rising-tide-lifts-all-boats free trade.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, Clinton administration officials were well aware that NAFTA would provoke increased migration and hence, require, greater border-control measures. And they were right. As Todd Miller writes:
The ensuing upheavals in Mexico… were like the aftermath of a war or natural disaster. Small farmers couldn’t compete against highly subsidized US agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Mexican small-business owners were bankrupted by the likes of Walmart, Sam’s Club, and other corporate powers. Mining by foreign companies extended across vast swaths of Mexico, causing territorial conflicts and poisoning the land. The unprecedented and desperate migration that followed came up against what might be considered the other side of the Clinton doctrine of open trade: walls, increased border agents, increased patrolling, and new surveillance technologies meant to cut off traditional crossing spots in urban areas like El Paso, San Diego, Brownsville, and Nogales.
Mexico, the civilization that gave corn to the world, soon found itself a net importer of subsidized corn and other agribusiness produce from the United States. Some two million jobs disappeared in the countryside, and while those losses were ostensibly offset by gains in the manufacturing sector, most of the jobs created were of the low-wage and high-exploitation variety in assembly plants known as maquiladoras. The nation’s post- NAFTA annual growth has been 1.2%, one of the hemisphere’s lowest. The minimum wage of 73 pesos translates, at current exchange rates, to less than four dollars – a day. As predicted, and despite the recent decline, post-NAFTA immigration levels shot up:
In response, the Clinton Administration launched Operation Gatekeeper to beef up border security in 1994 and, two years later, signed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, making it both easier for the US to deport immigrants and harder for the immigrants themselves to obtain legal status. The Act also provided for a border fence near San Diego to accompany the coastal fence already in existence. Then, in 2006, the Bush Administration signed the Secure Fence Act to build 700 additional miles of fencing. The Act was passed by bipartisan majorities, including then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And increased security has meant increased death, as migrants have been pushed into taking more dangerous routes through the desert to reach their destinations. Since the 1990’s, some 5,000 migrant corpses have been recovered in the US-Mexican borderlands; the actual death toll is certainly much higher.
As for President Obama, after calling NAFTA “devastating” and “a big mistake” during the 2008 presidential primaries, he modified his position during the general election campaign and, once in office, declined to reopen the agreement. Indeed, the states that cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – are amongst those that have been the hardest hit by NAFTA-provoked job losses.
Five Days Away From Paralysis
Another reason to fast-track and pass NAFTA – and other trade agreements such as CAFTA and the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership – was to lock in a series of labor, environmental and copyright provisions that would be immune to modification by standard legislative procedures. This was particularly the case for Mexico, where, in the words of an internal Pentagon document, a “democracy opening” could tip over the apple cart by “bringing into office a government more interested in challenging the U.S. on economic and nationalist grounds.” It is instructive that, whereas NAFTA for the United States is considered to be an “agreement”, passed by simple Congressional majorities, in Mexico it holds the status of a treaty: El Tratado de libre comercio de América del Norte (TLCAN). Make no mistake: although the US has made a big show of fighting religious fundamentalism around the world, its true enemy has always been secular nationalism – countries, that is, which have the gall to take control of their natural resources to promote their national interests.
Since the 1982 peso crisis that precipitated the drastic devaluation of its currency, Mexico has been governed by a non-stop string of neoliberal governments incarnated by dueling, and periodically complicit, right-wing parties: the Partido de Revolución Institucional (PRI) and the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN). Over that period, the two major attempts at the kind of “democracy opening” the Pentagon worried about have been erased by electoral fraud: the 1988 election, in which the victory of center-left candidate Cuauhtémoc Cardenas was snatched by the PRI’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and in 2006, when the triumph of progressive candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was undone in order to thrust PAN candidate Felipe Calderón into office. The 2012 election, which saw the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, was plagued with irregularities, from vote buying and coercion to overt media complicity: in a series of exposés, the Guardian demonstrated how the main television station, Televisa, had conspired as early as 2009 to elevate Peña Nieto by lavishing him with positive coverage while smearing opponents.
The effects of Mexico’s generation of fraud-perpetuated neoliberalism have been the same as in other countries where the model has been applied: increased volatility, a growing gap between rich and poor (elevating it to second among OECD nations), the privatization of gains and the socialization of losses, and the fraying of the social safety net. But in Mexico, the standard neoliberal recipe has been accompanied by unparalleled violence in the form of the nation’s “drug war”, launched by President Calderón in December 2006 with the full support of the United States. According to a Frontline report, civilian deaths due to the conflict have outpaced those of Afghanistan and Iraq combined over the same period. Thousands more have been forced to flee their homes and violence-torn regions, increasing migratory pressures.
In terms of foreign relations, neoliberalism a lo mexicano has inevitably led to increased dependence on the United States. Eighty percent of Mexican exports are destined for its northern neighbor, making it singularly susceptible to America’s economic woes: in 2009, for example, its economy tumbled by 6.5%, making it one of the worst affected by the Great Recession. In the early 1980’s, as novelist Juan Villoro points out, Mexico was the fourth-leading oil producer in the world. Now, due to the privatization of its oil industry and a failure to build sufficient refineries, it only has enough gas reserves to last for five days. “This is the measure of our failure,” notes Villoro ruefully, “a nation five days away from paralysis.”
As ex (and future) presidential candidate López Obrador points out, shipping oil to be refined in the US and bought back as gasoline is like exporting oranges and buying orange juice. But such is the twisted logic of neoliberalism that it militates against domestic self-sufficiency of any kind in search of the supposed savings entailed by importing cheaper goods and services produced by economies that attained industrialization, in their day, behind ample tariff walls. And, of course, a nation that is five days away from having its gasoline turned off is not one inclined to rock the boat in domestic and international matters. The days of Mexico shipping subsidized oil to Cuba despite the US embargo are, by now, a distant memory. As in colonial times, the nation has gone back to being an appendage of a major power.
Whacking the Hornet’s Nest
From a realpolitik point of view, then, Trump’s decision to whack the hornet’s nest of Mexican nationalism by ordering a wall and making threatening phone calls south of the border is nothing short of mystifying: the US has Mexico right where it wants it, just as things stand. For all the talk of trade deficits, the deficit with Mexico is not only lower as a percentage of total imports than in years both pre-and-post-NAFTA, but when you take into account that nearly half of the content in Mexican imports is actually produced in the US, the trade picture tilts even further in America’s favor.
But now, in response to the president’s posturing, a buy-national movement has started up under the hashtag #AdiosStarbucks. Mexican citizens near the border in Reynosa, for example, are urging boycotts of American malls in McAllen, Texas, although the effects are still uncertain. Even the meek Peña Nieto called off his visit with his American counterpart. Moreover, the third-time’s-a-charm candidacy of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in elections set for 2018 will almost certainly be strengthened: Obrador, who has called for re-nationalizing Mexico’s oil industry and building the infrastructure needed to refine its own gasoline, is likely to be seen as the only candidate able to stand up to Trump amongst the wreckage of thirty years of diplomatic abjectness that has gotten the nation precious little in exchange but accusations of being rapists and the promise of a big, fat wall.
And it is precisely Trump’s clumsy bludgeoning and his willingness to tear up the NAFTA rulebook that has opened up an opportunity for Mexico to chart a new path, one that doesn’t put all of its eggs in the American imperial basket but instead diversifies its market by looking out into the world and south to its Latin neighbors, trading North American dependence with Central and South American interdependence. Such moves towards greater self-sufficiency, sustainability and determination should be welcomed by American progressives in solidarity with progressive causes around the world. But they should also be welcomed by the US as a whole which, for far too long, has sought to grind Mexico under its geopolitical fist at the cost of exponentially – and knowingly – increasing the very immigration problem it has purported to combat. In this case, as in so many others, the US would do well to be more Hippocratic than hypocritical: first, do no harm.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly names the TPP as the Trans-Pacific Protocol instead of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.