U.S. Trade policy and Immigration: Connecting the Dots

Border wall section near the Eagle Pass Int’l Bridge.


The border, migrant laborers, the maquiladoras and now ICE jails and deportation.

Why hasn’t the discourse on immigration reform ever taken into account how NAFTA produced waves of migration to the U.S.?  Or how CAFTA created maquiladora jobs but did nothing to reduce the systemic corruption and violence that ovewhelms Central America?

The news is daily filled with stories of how Trump and his anti-immigrant agenda are perpetuating hate and hurt.  But not enough is explained of how U.S. policies have been part of why there were waves of mass migration in the first place.  Trade law and policy have been consistent in supporting corporate growth at the cost of human need for living wages, shelter and good health.

Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and practices are in fact intimately connected to many problematic aspects of the globalizing economy in recent decades.

Promoters of a free global market like borderless investment for capital and corporations.  They don’t appreciate the demands of workers to living wages and workplace safety.   NAFTA allowed companies to outsource and avoid union wages in the U.S.  When the jobs arrived in Mexico they were systematically anti-worker, anti-woman, toxic, and especially anti-union.

NAFTA’s impact overall negatie and toxic in the lives of workers on both sides of the border.  The question remains whether the new USMCA (or NAFTA 2.0) passed 12/10/2019 and hailed as a victory by Donald Trump, will improve conditions and pay for labor.  Corporate capital’s movement is increased in the large free trade zone.  But what about movement for migrant labor?

“Free trade” has mean borderless movement that’s great for business.  But not usually for workers and for their basic human needs.  Especially thoe in the maquiladoras.  The free trade zone is not only industrialized it is also militarized and policed against migrants and laborers.  For people escaping an unsafe maquiladora job, or gang related death threats, kidnappings or sexual violence, hunger and poverty, or loss of jobs or livelihood because of anti-small farmer trade deals or natural disaster,  the border is closed.

Closed, policed and militarized.

Meanwhile people and children sit in cages and detention.  The owners of those immigration jails rake in profits from contracts with DHS/ICE. The shareholders of those prison companies enjoy wildly successful earnings on the stock market.

The essence of both current trade and immigration policy appears to be the same — make money, lots of it, and if necessary or convenient, profit from human suffering.

WOB is dedicated  to raising awareness of the human rights implications surrounding trade policies with Mexico or Central America and current anti-migrant policy and practice.  Our goal is to broaden understanding of how trade agreements, old and new, have usually denied respect for the basic human dignity of workers, migrants and their families and how corporations also benefit from increased militarization of the border and border wall construction.

U.S. free trade agendas have never helped workers either here or abroad. Post NAFTA, or Trump’s revised USMCA, the movement of capital remains borderless and free.  The movement of workers, migrants or asylum seekers is not.

The intersecting policies of trade and immigration have produced harm in so many ways —  militarized borders, destruction of lives, communities, wildlife and people with bigger walls, migrants dying in deserts and mountains, detention, family separations, children in cages, deportations and innocent people dying while in ICE custody.

ERA, Board member, October 2019

Protesting deaths of migrants at the border caused by militarization and walls.

Journey of an Immigrant Delegation (2012). A Sierra Club volunteer shows delegates how the wall does more harm than good.


Writer, attorney, Lawprof Emerita from Northern Illinois University.
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