NAFTA

Walls That Divide

Prayer ribbons hung on the wall in South Korea, meunierd / Shutterstock.com
Prayer ribbons hung on the wall in South Korea, meunierd / Shutterstock.com

Walls exist between U.S. and Mexico. A few years ago, I took a class to the Mexico-U.S. border through BorderLinks, an organization that provides educational experiences to connect divided communities, raise awareness about border and immigration policies and their impact, and inspires people to act for social transformation. We visited the metal wall that separates the United States from Mexico at Nogales, Mexico.

The walls went up in 1994.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), established in 1994, was supposed to help with trade and the economic status of Mexico. However, it failed to do this. It backfired and made the economic situation worse for the people of Mexico. Rich corporations and companies that benefited from the Free Trade Agreement as they were able to move their factories down to Mexico where the labor was cheap and profits higher. As the economy of Mexico suffered, more people made their way, without documents, to the United States to seek work so they could support their families.

In 2006, the United States responded with the Secure Fence Act. As President George W. Bush signed the bill, he stated, “This bill will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure. It is an important step toward immigration reform.” The act included provisions for the construction of physical barriers — walls — and the use of technology to these ends.

This wall is under constant surveillance to prevent people from entering into the U.S. illegally. Ironically, it is a wall built from the remaining metal landing scraps of the Gulf War. The border is highly militarized with patrols who treat migrants as “prisoners of war.” It symbolizes militarization, greed, xenophobia, hatred, pride, nonsense, and fear of the other, a reminder of wanting to protect what is yours and not sharing what God has given you. Walls continue to go up along the border as the people of the United States continue to fear that undocumented people will take away jobs. These fears may devastate the lives of the poor in both countries.

Bordering on the Truth

DURING CONGRESS’ current debate about immigration reform, the realities faced by immigrants and border communities are all too often misunderstood and misrepresented. What are the facts about border issues?

Myth #1: Border walls are effective for keeping out unauthorized border crossers.
Reality: History teaches us that walls don’t work when economic opportunity is on the other side—but walls that are higher and longer do cause more injuries and death when people are forced to go over, under, and around.

The most recent era of migration across the southern U.S. border was caused primarily by economic factors, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) caused millions of Mexican farmers to lose their livelihoods. The current border strategy, enacted hand in hand with NAFTA, envisioned deterring economic refugees by intentionally funneling migration to dangerous desert areas. The danger and death happened; the deterrence didn’t. It was the U.S. economic downturn, much more than the wall, that has caused the current net-zero immigration rate.

Myth #2: The border is safer today because the Border Patrol has doubled in number in less than a decade.
Reality: Since 2005, 144 Customs and Border Protection employees have been arrested or indicted on corruption charges, including smuggling people or drugs. A federally funded analysis correlates the problem with the surge in agents and a weak internal disciplinary system. Excessive use of force by Border Patrol agents is of increasing concern. Last October, an agent at the border wall fired into the streets of Nogales, Mexico, killing 16-year-old Jose Elena Rodriguez, the second Mexican teenager killed by Border Patrol fire into the city in less than two years. The autopsy reported that Elena Rodriguez was shot at least seven times from behind.

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Trade Agreements vs. Democracy

THE ANONYMOUS DEATH threats phoned to Archbishop Pedro Barreto and others in March told them to stop speaking out about the foreign-owned metals smelting plant in La Oroya, Peru.

Barreto, a Catholic archbishop of the Andean region that includes La Oroya, has been a leading advocate for the health of the 35,000-person town, which the plant has made one of the world’s most contaminated places: 99 percent of children there have dangerous levels of lead in their blood.

However, in an unconscionable move made possible by the 2009 U.S.-Peru trade agreement, it is the polluter who claims to be the victim. The massive New York-based holding company Renco Group Inc., whose subsidiary Doe Run Peru owns the smelter, last year filed an $800 million trade-tribunal lawsuit against the Peruvian government, claiming it violated the company’s rights by enforcing environmental regulations in La Oroya.

It’s one of a growing wave of such arbitrations being filed all over the world by extractive-industry foreign investors. In a similar case, the transnational corporation Pacific Rim has filed a $70 million case against El Salvador, after local communities and activists—four of whom have been murdered—opposed gold mining that could contaminate one of the country’s largest rivers.

The suits circumvent nations’ environmental laws by exploiting so-called “investors’ rights” chapters of trade agreements; such provisions are common in bilateral trade agreements, such as the U.S.-Peru pact, and regional agreements such as NAFTA.

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Trading Spaces

More than 100 church and grassroots organizations from the United States,

More than 100 church and grassroots organizations from the United States, Canada, and Mexico met in New York in January to discuss international financial institutions and trade and investment treaties that affect the poor in North America. "Behind these trade agreements are people," said Lina Aresteo, who is part of a Mexican union of women textile workers who attended the meeting.

Participants developed a list of proposals titled "What Does God Require of Us? A Declaration for Just Trade in the Service of an Economy of Life" that churches can adopt to promote economic justice. The meeting emphasized churches’ responsibility to voice concerns about the effects of policy decisions on poor working people worldwide. The Mexican economy has grown less than 1 percent since NAFTA was signed, said Dora Esther Davila Cordillera from the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos in Mexico City.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2004
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Welcoming the Stranger Among Us

When poet and author Luis Rodríguez speaks to the diverse groups of students in our inner-city schools, he tells them, "Respect is the bridge to understanding" between themselves and the police, their parents, gang rivals, or people from different racial and ethnic communities. When it comes to living with immigrants among us, this is a lesson that we all must learn.

For the majority of Americans who have never left this country, the experience of pulling up roots, bidding farewell to friends and family—maybe forever—and placing oneself in the midst of an unknown culture is entirely foreign. It is helpful to remember the heroism inherent in the leap of faith these immigrants take; like Sarah and Abraham, they head off across the wilderness for an unknown country, in some cases with a repressive government or military breathing down their necks.

The volume of immigration has risen in recent years, though the rate relative to the U.S. base population is still far below past levels. Behind this new wave of immigration are many of the same causes that brought most of our ancestors to the United States—including flight from political, cultural, or religious persecution or war, as well as the search for prosperity. With global telecommunications and a world-spanning economy, it’s now possible for people around the world to be tempted by the American Dream, fueling the increase in migration.

The recent Los Angeles earthquake has shaken up the debate on immigration. California Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposals to restrict earthquake relief money to legal residents is only one in a series of anti-immigrant proposals that the governor—along with politicians in other states that receive large numbers of immigrants, such as Florida and New York—has offered.

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Sojourners Magazine May 1994
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