Spring Planting: Generations in the Garden
How NAFTA Produced Mexican Migration

Testimonies from the Desert: What’s behind our Standard of Living?

Today's post is from Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State College. The author of several books—including her latest, "They Take Our Jobs!" And 20 Other Myths About Immigration—Chomsky has been active in Latin American solidarity and immigrants' rights issues for over twenty-five years. 

In early March I spoke about immigration rights in a colleague's class at Salem State. "We can't be expected to take care of all the world's needy people," one student protested. "If we let in everybody who wanted to come, we couldn't maintain our standard of living here."

A week later I was on the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, collecting testimonies from migrants who had been captured in the Arizona desert and deported back across the border. Dazed, exhausted and dehydrated, they hobbled on raw, blistered feet and clutched small plastic bags stamped "Homeland Security" that held all of their worldly possessions. Although my supposed task was to document abuses by the U.S. border patrol, most migrants had more pressing hopes when I approached them. "Can you help me get in? Could you adopt me?"

The student's words haunted me just as the mass of dispossessed humanity haunted me, just as the barbed-wire-topped wall that slices in half the city of Nogales haunted me, during the week I spent there.

They Take Our Jobs book cover In a certain respect, the student's second comment was correct: we could not maintain our standard of living here if we let in everybody who wanted to come. The true meaning of the statement was eminently clear in Nogales. Much as a southern plantation owner could not maintain his or her standard of living without a large population of slaves to labor in the fields and provide domestic service, people in the United States could not maintain their standard of living without a set of legal structures that provides access to underpaid labor that picks fruits and vegetables, works in sweatshops, processes meat, cleans houses, and landscapes yards. It's that cheap labor that directly maintains our standard of living. It provides our food, it makes the products we buy, and it undergirds the services we rely on. And we couldn't keep our easy access to that underpaid labor if we changed our immigration laws.

The fence in Nogales is one piece of a system that creates a high standard of living in the United States. In an integrated North American economy that includes both the United States and Mexico, it creates two castes of people: those with U.S. citizenship, and those without. U.S. citizens take freedom of movement as a birthright. With their U.S. passports they can choose to travel almost anywhere in the world. Mexican citizens, however, are imprisoned behind the wall. In Mexico, they can work on plantations, in mines, or in factories producing cheap goods for their neighbors to the north. Or, they can risk their lives to try to escape to the wealthy north—where they can continue to work on farms, in mines, and in factories, or in schools, hospitals, and homes, providing cheap services as well as products.

It's U.S. laws that keep them in this prison. In Mexico, the government cannot protect workers' rights to wages, to food, to the basics of survival. One of the main reasons is NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which forced Mexico's government to privatize and cut social services and allows U.S. companies to sue if labor or environmental protections infringe on their ability to make profits. In the United States, it's immigration laws that deprive people born on the wrong side of the border of the social, environmental, and labor rights that U.S. citizens enjoy. In both cases, it is U.S. laws and policies that keep Mexicans poor and desperate, that keep them coming across the border, and that force them to work, on both sides of the border, under conditions often not far removed from slavery. And it's that cheap labor that makes our standard of living possible.

I'm sure this is not what the student meant when he said that we could not maintain our standard of living if we opened our borders. I'm sure he imagines that the wealth of the United States—with 4% of the world's population we consume between 25 and 50% of the world's resources—is due to some kind of luck or innate superiority or worthiness, rather than to laws and structures that keep non-U.S. citizens in a state of poverty, need, and fear that forces them to sacrifice their families, their health, and even their lives, for the privilege of working for us at low wages.

"Nobody," I wish I had told the student, "ever asked 'us' to take care of all the world's poor. Maybe, though, we could work towards a world in which the world's poor do not have to spend their lives taking care of us."