NAFTA and Immigration: Connecting the Dots

A comment by Elvia Arriola, Board Member, Women on the Border.

Why do contemporary proponents of immigration reform ignore the connections between increased migration of people looking for work in the U.S. and the changes in both the Mexican and U.S. domestic economies pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)?   To labor activists the two have obviously gone hand in hand.  But it seems that few are bothered to examine how and why the rise and fall of American multinational corporate investments under NAFTA have also contributed to the economic mess our country is in today.

As the Trump administration seeks to reform the terms of NAFTA, one wonders whether the reforms will ever take into account the failures in the previous agreement to address the needs of workers in both countries to job safety, security and most importantly to living wages.

Free trade has always benefited more the corporations than workers.  Whether in the country where the corporations invest or here at home where jobs have been lost by U.S. workers.


In the past decades labor and environmental activists have complained that the global economy as bad for the working classes.  Under NAFTA American jobs were repeatedly lost every time another company outsourced to India or Mexico or China a job that had been paid at union wages.

Multinational corporations ran toward Mexico under NAFTA in the mid nineties, opening up a huge number of assembly factories for products once assembled in the U.S.  The American “rust belt” also changed as thousands of companies reorganized their production and assembly operations and outsourced to subsidiary factories opened up at the Mexican border.

Maquiladora Employee, Mexican border


The face of the Mexican economy began to change as more factories appeared,  hired new labor that in turn forced migrations of people desperate to work from the South.   The northern Mexican border had been industrialized once before in the 1960s with mostly female labor.  Now it got a booster shot with tempting privileges in NAFTA for corporations to invest, export, sell and profit with reduced labor costs, exemptions for tariffs and the potential for civil monetary judgments against a host country that threatens profitable activity with regulations viewed as the equivalent of “expropriation.”



Other benefits ensued for the foreign investor. An American company did not worry as much in Mexico about health and safety inspections as government officials have tended to be more lax with foreign companies.  The large bureaucratic unions have tended to side with management so that workers’ complaints about long hours or stress or even toxicity are virtually ignored.


Worker’s Housing, B – Cd. Acuña

Furthermore, under the North American Agreement on Labor Cooperation, complaints from workers against American companies became the government’s problem not the employers and because of the relative weakness of NAALC, the employers are almost unaccountable for abuse or misconduct. The most a company can be pressured by is the rise of a true democratic movement among the workers, which is usually avoided by bullying pro-management unions, or classic union-busting tactics like harassment and firing of activist workers. Fired workers are then blacklisted from factory work around the city.  The only way changes do take place in a maquiladora is with persistent, patient organizing by grassroots worker groups who educate the timid on their labor rights and who, using legal strategic tactics, assist them in organizing against sweatshop conditions, toxicity, abuse, harassment and workplace safety concerns.

Because NAFTA was designed for the investor and not the worker, the maquiladora industries at the border provide only jobs, not transferable skills, not careers or necessarily improvements in the general quality of living. NAFTA was pitched as a solution for illegal immigration.  But arguably, NAFTA has done the opposite. NAFTA has disrupted the economic arrangements in Mexico, mainly between the Mexican government and farmers, which has devastated the Mexican farmers’ ability to compete with American commercial farming.

The result has been a setup for economic disaster among local Mexican farmers. When they cannot compete, their families face starvation.  So they migrate wherever they hear of work.  The women may head to the cities for domestic service. Or the whole family heads for the border following up on connections to the freedom trails, the paths taken by other family, village contacts, or friends of friends, who go as far as they need to re-locate, find work, and make money to send back home. The migrants’ target?  The low wage jobs in the U.S., in restaurants, car washes, landscaping, janitorial, construction.

One only has to look at the conditions in the factories opened up by American companies to see why the migrants have preferred the illegal crossing to the job offered by an assembly factory opened up by a multinational corporation-unskilled labor, poor pay, terrible conditions, miserly take home pay, shantytown housing, environmental hazards, etc.  Is it any wonder then that the job at the border factory is at best a temporary stopping point?  If a worker can make 40-70 dollars per week in a factory for a 40-60 hour work week, why not opt for crossing illegally and getting at least that amount in one or two days of work?








About wpadmin

law prof emeritus, lawyer, writer.
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