By Hazel Guardado, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Much of the popular and academic literature around immigration focuses on how to manage immigrants once they have arrived in receiving countries. However, one lingering question remains: “why do so many leave their homes in the first place?”
Most migrants cite the search for a better life as a primary reason for migrating. With alarming poverty levels around the world and increasing inequalities, this is surely a reference to the economic forces that are key factors for migration today.
The relationship between poor economic circumstances and migration has proven to be increasingly strong: according to the International Labour Organization’s page on Labour migration, the number of migrants looking for employment is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades due to globalization’s failure to provide adequate economic opportunities.
Father Alejandro Solalinde, priest and human rights leader from southern Mexico, describes migration as “the movement of the poor, with 200 million people on the move in the world today, forced from their homes by economic and political systems that don’t allow them to provide for their families in their countries of origin.”
Globalization and its discontents
Though globalization is typically associated with better technology, higher GDP, and a more integrated world, these effects are mostly felt by those who are better off to begin with. Globalization has not only failed to create “adequate economic opportunities,” but it has also increased the gap between rich and poor.
In Latin America and Global Capitalism, William Robinson argues that globalization has created the perfect conditions for mass labor migrations, especially through the expansion of capitalism into new areas and the industrialization of areas already brought into the global economy.
According to Robinson, migration is driven by capitalist dynamics because the current economic system needs a global labor force that it finds through migrants, a form of highly exploitable labor. For Robinson, the dynamics in Latin America manifest themselves as the shift from nationally oriented economies focused on domestic markets to transnationally oriented economies that increasingly serve a global elite. These elites are pressured by the economic system, which by its nature generates winners and losers, to seek economic dominance or become dominated. They thus push self-serving policies such as trade integration, regional liberalization, and privatization, and create conditions that force poor people out of their countries of origin.
In this frame, Robinson argues that most of today’s migrants are “coerced” by globalization.
NAFTA’s latent effects
One landmark policy of the globalization era is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), ratified by Canada, the United States, and Mexico in 1994. A report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research entitled, “Did NAFTA Help Mexico? An Assessment After 20 Years,” paints a bleak picture of Mexico’s economic performance: “It ranks 18th out of 20 Latin American countries in growth of real GDP per person…. Its poverty rate in 2012 was almost identical to the poverty rate of 1994; real wages were almost the same in 2012 as in 1994, and unemployment has increased significantly.”
In a Nation article titled “How the US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration,” David Bacon describes how the opening up of Mexican markets to pork imports from major US companies and the subsequent drop in prices devastated small-scale butchers.
Roberto Ortega, a butcher from Veracruz, Mexico, explains that he would do whatever he could to make money, but that he “could never make enough…to survive.” Ortega migrated to the U.S. in 1999 to work for the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina to make ends meet.
Such cases are plentiful, and they highlight what Robinson calls the distinction between citizen labor and migrant labor. Migrants are extraordinarily exploitable because of their undocumented status and because their families in countries of origin require less money to be maintained.
Philippines: Labor export as policy
The Philippines is also worth mentioning, as its government has reacted to economic crisis by becoming a major labor exporter. In “The Philippines’ Culture of Migration,” Maruja Asis from the Migration Policy Institute talks about a convergence of supply and demand factors in the 1970s: the already strong “push” factors for migration were “made worse by the oil crisis in 1973,” while “the oil-rich Gulf countries needed workers to realize their ambitious infrastructure projects.”
According to Asis, dictator Ferdinand Marcos saw an opportunity, and the system where the Philippine government provides labor through regulated channels continues today. The government works with countries in need of labor to secure a smooth flow of labor migration but to prevent permanent immigration. Asis notes that eight percent of the country’s population currently resides abroad, and “from 1990 to 2001, official remittances alone averaged 20.3 percent of export earnings and 5.2 percent of GNP….”
This kind of state-controlled migration strategy also proves problematic, as it attempts to avoid the question of national development by shipping excess labor abroad. In addition, poor employment prospects in the Philippines obligate many to leave their homes in order to feed their families. Despite its drawbacks for migrants, the Filipino model may be studied by Latin American governments as a way of generating more taxable income and blunting potential popular protests caused by lack of economic opportunities domestically.
In an era where competition and interconnectedness prevail, migration is more attractive, necessary, and feasible than ever before. The question, “why are so many people leaving their homes in the first place?” becomes more important in understanding that migration is not an unwarranted or temporary phenomenon but rather a reaction to larger global forces.