Weekly Diaspora: How Bad U.S.-Latin American Policy Fuels Unauthorized Immigration

By Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Too often, the immigration debate in this country ignores the role U.S. foreign policy plays in fueling unauthorized immigration. But as the Obama administration continues to stall on immigration reform in the United States—all the while moving forward with two contentious trade agreements with Colombia and Panama—the connections between the two are worth examining.

CAFTA impoverished Salvadoran farmers

During President Obama’s tour of Latin America last month, ongoing mass protests underscored the U.S. government’s own hand in stimulating unauthorized immigration to its borders. Reporting on the president’s visit to El Salvador, for example, Juan Gonzales of Democracy Now! notes that hundreds of Salvadorans gathered to demand the renegotiation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which devastated the country’s agricultural sector, impoverishing and displacing farmers. Considered alongside the country’s tragic history of U.S.-backed military repression (which Democracy Now! explores in greater detail), it should be no surprise that El Salvador is the second largest source of undocumented immigrants to the United States.

NAFTA displaces one million Mexican farmers

The first, of course, is Mexico—which has its own sordid history of U.S. involvement. As Michelle Chen at Colorlines.com explains, “the deregulation of agriculture under [the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s] coincided with the devastation of Mexico’s farm sector, displacing some one million farmers and driving many northward across the border in search of work.”

While NAFTA created considerable economic opportunities for U.S. businesses eager to conduct business in low-wage Mexico, it also allowed American farmers to flood the Mexican market with government-subsidized corn—destroying the country’s own corn industry and bankrupting thousands of agricultural workers.

Obama’s 180 on Latin American policy

It’s worth noting that Obama, during his presidential campaign, promised to overhaul NAFTA on the grounds that “our trade agreements should not just be good for Wall Street, it [sic] should also be good for Main Street.” Yet, as Steve Ellner argues in the latest issue of In These Times, Obama gradually abandoned his initially critical stance on Latin American policy—choosing instead to “placate rightist critics.” Ellner adds that Obama’s shifting position on the pending (CAFTA-modeled) trade agreement with Colombia—moving “from opposition…to lukewarm endorsement…to vigorous support—is just one example of his turnabout on Latin American policy.”

While Obama has taken some steps to address potential labor abuses in the agreement (NAFTA and CAFTA’s absence of such measures is a key criticism of the deals), trade unionists in Colombia and the United States alike have voiced skepticism:

Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen argued against the agreement by pointing out that 15 million Colombians representing 82 percent of the working population are not recognized as workers and thus under the law “have no rights.”

Big Business funds paramilitary killings in Colombia

The skepticism is well founded, as the United States has a long history of favoring business interests over the rights of workers—both at home and abroad. Earlier this month, for instance, evidence surfaced that the Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International may have hired Colombian paramilitary groups “responsible for countless killings” as security for its Colombian facilities. This is in spite of the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded an investigation of Chiquita in 2007, ruling that any money paid out to the paramilitary groups—one of which was a designated terrorist watch group—was extorted, and that “Chiquita never received any actual services in exchange for them.”

Jim Lobe and Aprille Muscara of Inter Press Service report that the documents were released by the National Security Archive (NSA), an independent research group, on the same day that President Obama met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss labor rights in the pending trade agreement. According to Michael Evans, NSA’s chief researcher on Colombia, the evidence against Chiquita is clear.

“What we still don’t know is why U.S. prosecutors overlooked what appears to be clear evidence that Chiquita benefited from these transactions,” he told IPS.

U.S. banks launder billions for Mexican drug cartels

Even more recently, news broke that the federal government failed to prosecute a number of U.S. banks guilty of laundering billions of dollars for Mexican drug cartels. New America Media/Al Diá reports that Wachovia (now owned by Wells Fargo) alone moved $378.4 billion for cartels through money exchangers and $4.7 billion handled in bulk cash between 2004 and 2007. Yet this past March, the federal government formally dropped all charges against the bank, per a settle agreement reached the previous year, and despite Wachovia’s indirect role in financing a five-year drug war that has taken countless lives and continues to drive unauthorized immigration to the United States.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Buy America Stokes Stimulus Packages

Leading Republicans say that the administration’s $787 billion stimulus plan passed a year ago failed.  They claim that tax breaks for business would be more effective than government priming the economic pump in a new stimulus plan—passed by the House of Representatives in December—headed for the U.S. Senate.

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U.S. Falling Behind in Green Jobs Growth

Throughout the 2008 election season, we were told that the green-energy economy would put our economy back on the road to recovery by creating tens of thousands of new jobs in wind, solar and other non-polluting energy sectors.

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Economic Protectionism Threatens National Security

Economic protectionism does more than threaten economic recovery these days, it also threatens national security. Economists agree that economic protectionism is a losing strategy for strengthening GDP. Barriers to free trade and commerce actually harm native economies by proliferating protectionism globally as nations respond by passing defensive barriers of their own.

But the domestic economy is not the only thing threatened by some protectionism under consideration in the US Congress right now. The Kansas City Star reports, a new trade measure proposed by the White House would provide for "Reconstruction Opportunity Zones" in Pakistan, a lynchpin in the war on terror.

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55 House members speak out for fair trade

Corrected to note that one Republican also signed this letter.

Today 55 House representatives took a stand against the Panama Free Trade Agreement in an open letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

After the jump I've posted the full text of the letter, along with the list of those who signed. Here is an excerpt:

We believe trade agreements must meet basic standards protecting labor rights, environmental standards, food safety regulations, financial regulations, and taxation transparency. We are disturbed by Panama's tax haven status and the use of this tax haven by U.S. financial institutions like AIG and Citibank. The U.S. is currently contemplating stricter financial regulations to protect our economy, but the Panama FTA will likely weaken any such effort. We believe the Panama FTA should be renegotiated in order to address these outstanding issues.

President Obama campaigned effectively on changing the trade model and his message resonated with the American people.  We believe the Panama FTA falls far short of that commitment and it is not in the best interests of the American worker, our economy, or our country.  We share your commitment to fighting for working families and believe you can be an effective advocate for our cause.

The House members who signed the letter mostly belong to the Populist Caucus, House Trade Working Group, and/or the Progressive Caucus. One Republican signed: Walter Jones (NC-03).

"Defending American competitiveness by fighting for fair trade principles" is one of the six key priorities for the Populist Caucus, which Bruce Braley (IA-01) formed earlier this year.

Also today, a U.S. Trade Representative announced that the Panama agreement "won't be submitted to Congress for approval until President Barack Obama offers a new 'framework' for trade." At Open Left, David Sirota interpreted that announcement as a victory (albeit possibly only temporary) for the Populist Caucus, its allies and the AFL-CIO, which had already come out against the Panama agreement.

We'll see whether the White House is willing to deviate significantly from the NAFTA model in this agreement. Whatever the final outcome, I am glad to see a large House contingent taking a stand for fair trade.

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