Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner in a statement released January 2, 2008 has declared the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) “…one of the most successful trade agreements in our history…” citing the enormous rise in agricultural exports to Mexico, from $5.9 billion at NAFTA’s inception in 1994 under the Clinton administration, to $24 billion in 2006.
What Conner failed to discuss in his statement was the devastation NAFTA has wreaked upon Mexican farming, causing staple products such as corn and tomatoes from the United States to be cheaper to import than grow locally, with those U.S. operations using cheap – and oft-times illegal – labor imported from south of the border.
There is no question that NAFTA has been a boon to U.S. agricultural exports. But its effects reached beyond the border, and created a vacuum within the Mexican economy. The needs of the displaced and dispossessed sustenance farmers are being filled in many instances by illegal hiring practices in the United States in such industries as construction and farming.
Many of the illegal immigrants who have landed in the United States once ran their own farms at home in Mexico, but found that their hand-labor intensive farming methods had no hope of competing with the mechanized megafarms in the United States, and were forced from their land seeking work elsewhere – with the United States the obvious market with its porous border and “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude toward illegal aliens of Hispanic descent.
Tomatoes are a hand-picked crop, backbreaking labor that pays laborers by the bucket picked or by the pound. Taco Bell and parent company Yum Brands last spring entered into an agreement with migrant farm worker organization Coalition of Immokalee Workers to double the price of tomatoes – from 1 cent to 2 cents per pound. McDonald’s was soon pressured to follow suit, as are other restaurant chains in the United States.
“McDonald’s has decided to work with the growers instead of the workers,” said Amanda Shanor, program director with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights in an interview with New Standard reporter Kari Lydersen. That is, until McDonald’s entered into a similar agreement on April 9, drawing the ire of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which controls 90% of the tomato crop in the state.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers acknowledges on their website that most of its workers are immigrants – but does not comment on their legal standing to be working within the United States.
CIW’s next target, Burger King, refuses to bow down – and the legal status of the people being employed by the growers is one of the issues Burger King cites. CIW recently organized a march between Burger King’s headquarters and a local Goldman Sachs office. Goldman Sachs is a primary investor in the Burger King chain.
“We’re being asked to do something that we have legal questions about,” Steve Grover, vice president for food safety and regulatory compliance at Burger King, said in an interview with the New York Times. “We want to find a way to make sure that workers are protected and receive a decent wage.”
And well Burger King should question the legality of the operation. Most tomato pickers in Florida are ‘hired’ from what has become a common scene wherever large numbers of illegal aliens have migrated. The typical scenario – a pickup truck or bus pulling into parking lots filled with people waiting, the driver pointing out at one or two of the people gathered there, then driving off, with no paperwork and no questions asked on the legal status of their new ’employees’ to be within the country.
Corn is still a hand-picked crop in Mexico, and has become totally incapable of competing with mechanized farming north of the border. Picking corn by hand fell to the wayside in the United States nearly a century ago with the advent of the combine, when one person operating a machine could harvest one hundred acres in a day – what it would take a large family weeks to bring to market if picking by hand.
In the United States, it was once common to see busloads of teenagers moving into the fields mid-summer, out in the fields of hybrid corn removing tassels from select rows to ensure pollenization by one breed only. Now, busloads still arrive to remove the tassels, but Spanish is usually the sole language of the crews that work by the acre, and not the hour.
The hybrid operation asks no questions of the sub-contractors they are employing in this way, since the detasseling companies themselves are U.S. operations. One such operation leased eight apartments in an Illinois community in July 2007 – and transported the people living in those 8, 2-bedroom apartments in 2 buses capable of seating 50 people each.
Oklahoma passed legislation practices in May 2007 cracking down on illegal hiring, in a move that has caused a mass out-migration of illegal workers from the state. Construction companies have seen as many as 8 of 10 of their employees leaving the state – and are having trouble finding laborers willing to work at the low wages being paid to those workers, with dozens of in-progress homes in Tulsa going dormant.
A recent NPR story on the ‘plight’ of the illegal aliens in Oklahoma showcased the problem. People living in the United States for well over a decade, who have never worked legally in the country and never learned English, leaving in droves in fear that their illegal status would be discovered. And protestors clamoring that Oklahoma is infringing on these people’s human rights.
Oklahomans are attempting to force the federal government into action at enforcing the laws on the books, tired of their schools being overtaxed by a population ill-suited for learning in an English language environment, and their citizens unable to get jobs at a decent wage because of the competition from illegal hiring practices. There is no question that these people who have been permitted to enter the country illegally have a right to survive and a chance to pursue their right to life, liberty and happiness – either in their own nation, or by coming to the United States legally.
However, they have chosen to break the laws of a sovereign nation, which should have consequences.
While it may not be the province of the Department of Agriculture to address the issues caused by NAFTA, it is the responsibility of the United States government, and the executive branch, to control the borders. The Agriculture department could help by enforcing immigration laws and employment standards, and investigating and punishing, growers and their subcontractors who are not fulfilling their requirements as employers to certify that their day laborers are in the country legally.