WILLIMANTIC, CT — The largest surge ever in legal and unauthorized Mexican migration to the United States began after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.
That is the conclusion of sociologist James W. Russell who studied migration patterns between 1910 and 2008 for his new book, Class and Race Formation in North America (University of Toronto Press, January 1, 2009).
In 1990, before NAFTA went into effect, 13.6 percent of Mexican-origin persons in the three countries of North America-the United States, Mexico, and Canada--lived in the United States. By 2000, after the entry into force of NAFTA, that percentage jumped to 17.5, the largest ever ten-year increase.
In 2005, the last year for which figures exist, it jumped further to 20.5 percent. Put differently, between 1990 and 2005 the Mexican-origin population in the United States increased by over 50 percent.
This occurred despite former Mexican and U.S. presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Bill Clinton both arguing that with NAFTA Mexico would export products rather than people. Precisely the opposite occurred, according to Russell.
The main reason: NAFTA allowed tariff-free imports to flood into Mexico, taking markets away from many Mexican peasants and manufacturers. With work no longer available, displaced peasants and workers joined in increasing numbers the migrant route north into the United States.
Russell argues that NAFTA had the same effect on migration and for the same reasons that Operation Bootstrap had in stimulating migration from Puerto Rico to the United States from the 1950s to the present. Before Operation Bootstrap went into effect there were relatively few Puerto Ricans living in the United States. Now over half (50.8 percent) live in the United States.
His findings in Class and Race Formation in North America are part of a larger study of how social classes and race relations have developed differently in the United States and its continental neighbors of Mexico and Canada over the five centuries since Europeans first arrived.
I still remember the day in 1992 when I went out from my apartment in Mexico City to buy a notebook. My Mexican-made notebooks had all come from De Todo, a large store across the street. This time, though, the notebook selection was different — they were all made in the United States. It was a sign of what was to come with NAFTA. Eight years later Wal-Mart would take over ownership of De Todo.
Several blocks up the street a large supermarket, part of the Aurrerá chain, was also sold to Wal-Mart. The millionaire owner of Aurrerá and other retail chain stores, Jerónimo Arango, became a billionaire after selling them all off to Wal-Mart.
At the time I knew that politicians and economists would be primarily involved in analyzing and commenting upon the advantages and disadvantages of NAFTA. Proponents of NAFTA would argue that integration of North America's economies would bring about rationalization and efficiency, and that this would be a logical development in the context of economic globalization.
The United States, Mexico, and Canada would form a bloc to compete with European and Asian blocs. Critics of NAFTA would argue that integrating the first world economies of the United States and Canada with the third world economy of Mexico would only be to the advantage of capital and not labor.
James W. Russell is University Professor of Sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University. He was formerly Fulbright Research Professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.
Professor Russell is the author of five other books including Double Standard: Social Policy in Europe and the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006). His articles have appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, and The Progressive. He has been interviewed on radio stations throughout the United States and Mexico.
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James W. Russell
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