How NAFTA Helped Fuel Illegal Immigration

This article is part of an ongoing series on the immigrant population that lives in the shadows of Door County.

On its surface, illegal immigration seems like a simple problem with a simple solution.

Attorney Luca Fagundes has carved out an unexpected niche in Northeastern Wisconsin as an expert in immigration law. Most of his clients are from desolate, remote agricultural areas – those affected most by the policies set forth in the North American Free Trade Agreement. Photo by Len Villano.

“These people are here illegally, so round them up and deport them,” logic says. “They’re taking jobs Americans could be filling at a time when Americans are desperate for work.”

Door County, however, serves as an enlightening example of how a problem of seemingly simple logic becomes one of immense complexity.

The peninsula’s businesses are desperate for seasonal and even year ‘round workers, but the local population hasn’t been able to fill that demand for decades, dating to the migrant workers who used to work in the orchards and fields of Horseshoe Bay Farms in the 1920s.

In the 1990s, as tourism and development boomed, that desperation reached new heights, leading to the importation of hundreds of foreign student workers and thousands of undocumented Mexican immigrants.

“We can’t find local kids able to fill these jobs and work these hours,” one Northern Door hotel owner, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. The innkeeper said it’s highly likely that some of their employees are illegal immigrants working with false documentation. “If we didn’t have them, I don’t know what we would do, and I’m not the only one.”

The jobs, even the seasonal nature of those in Door County, lure Mexicans to uproot their lives, pay thousands of dollars, and trek to the edge of another country to find work. Why?

“These people are desperate,” says Imelda Delchambre of the Hispanic Resource Center of Door and Kewaunee Counties.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1987 there were 2.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Today there are 11.1 million, and one of the largest reasons for the surge is rarely mentioned in the immigration debate.

Mexico’s economy was nothing to envy in the late 1980s, but a treaty championed by the United States helped send it into a tailspin in the mid-1990s.

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The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the target of scorn for millions of out-of-work Americans who blame the landmark agreement for decimating the United States manufacturing sector.

Nearly 20 years after the agreement was signed by President Bill Clinton it remains a topic that presidential candidates must address in visits to swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Despite NAFTA’s image, many economists say the net impact it has had on manufacturing jobs is negligible, placing more emphasis on the rise of China as an outsourcing hub.

What economists don’t question, however, is the pivotal role that NAFTA had in the surge in illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States, one with ripples still rolling into Door County.

Luca Fagundes, a Sturgeon Bay attorney specializing in immigration law, says a simple look at his client roster displays NAFTA’s impact.

“I don’t have clients from Mexico City,” he says. “I have clients from desolate, remote agricultural areas. The clients I have here are farm people, people with maybe a sixth grade education.”

NAFTA limited tariffs and other protections that Mexico could put on its agricultural sector, opening the country to a flood of American agri-business products. It also opened the door for cheaper, higher quality American electronics and appliances, crushing Mexican manufacturing as well.

Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy wrote about the miscalculations officials made when they crafted NAFTA in the early 1990s:

“Under the theory of comparative advantage, most of Mexico was deemed unfit to produce its staple food crop, corn, since its yields were way below the average for its northern neighbor and trade partner. Therefore, Mexico should turn to corn imports and devote its land to crops where it supposedly had a comparative advantage, such as counter-seasonal and tropical fruits and vegetables.

Sounds simple. Just pick up three million inefficient corn producers (and their families) and move them into manufacturing or assembly where their cheap labor constitutes a comparative advantage. The cultural and human consequences of declaring entire peasant and indigenous communities obsolete were not a concern in this equation.”

It didn’t take long for Mexican manufacturers and farmers to feel the effects. When heavily subsidized American agricultural products, particularly corn, hit the Mexican market it killed the nation’s farm industry.

Corn imports rose 500 percent since 1992. The World Bank reported that extreme rural poverty rose from 35 percent in 1994 to 55 percent in 1996.

Not surprisingly, Mexican farmers did not transform their crops in mass as was predicted. Between 1993 and 2005, Carlsen estimates that 1.1 million small Mexican farmers were driven out of business, and another 1.4 million agricultural jobs were lost. Other estimates put the number of farms closed at closer to 2 million.

According to a Carnegie Endowment study, real wages at factories along the Mexican border are 25 percent lower today than before the signing of NAFTA.

Ironically, NAFTA was touted as the only way to slow illegal immigration.

“The U.S. was supposed to benefit because the Mexicans were going to buy all our goods,” Fagundes says. “But it killed their economy so they have no buying power. So now you have millions of people who all they know is farming. What do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to go where the farming jobs are.”

Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States jumped from 260,000 people in 1994 to 400,000 in 1995, continuing at that pace until climbing to 500,000 per year in the 2000s.

Door County’s Hispanic population saw a similar climb. Delchambre said her organization estimated the Hispanic population of the two counties at about 1,600 in 2000. Today that estimate is at 3,500.

Most of those she sees at the center come from small rural villages decimated by the paltry economy and escalating drug wars. Once a family member makes it to Door County, others follow and a network is formed. They find employers willing to hire them.

Many farms, desperate for workers and unable to afford extensive background checks, take identification documents at face value, just as hotels, restaurants and trade businesses do.

The immigrants share connections and resources to find affordable housing, eventually carving out a life as vital, but quiet and often overlooked, members of the community.

“There’s always fear of deportation in the back of their minds,” Delchambre says, “but they don’t pay much attention to immigration politics, just try to keep their nose down.”

Many that are deported scramble to come right back or look for a connection in another part of the country, taking on the risks all over again – this time with one deportation already on their record.

The payoff is a life much more solid than the dilapidated rural towns that NAFTA helped push them to leave behind, even if their new life is shrouded in uncertainty.

While much of the immigration debate centers on the small portion of immigrant involved in violent crime and the drug trade, or the costs associated with taxpayer-funded services for non-citizens, the policies – like NAFTA – that created a human problem are left off the hook.

“People are just pushing themselves to where there’s work,” Fagundes says. “These are people being shoved out of a society that they were forced to become a part of largely by that society’s policy.”

If economic opportunity were better in Mexico we wouldn’t have such a big illegal immigration problem. Unfortunately, the problems of the Mexican economy come back, in part, to the United States as well.