Monday, November 5, 2012

The Other Side of Immigration

This week in my classes, we are talking about local social issues like homelessness, housing, and immigration.  We watched a documentary called "The Other Side of Immigration" which focuses on a specific town in Mexico, Pajacuaran, in the state of Michoacan, and examines the causes and effects of immigration from this town to the United States.  Often times, in American political discourse, the issue of Mexican immigration is discussed only from an American perspective.  But there are two sides to every story, and this film offers a refreshing Mexican perspective.

The primary cause of immigration in Michoacan is a lack of opportunities in the Mexican countryside.  Farmers who used to be able to support their families were crippled by the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which allowed powerful U.S. agribusiness to compete with rural Mexican farmers.  Large American corn growers, for example, receive subsidies from the government, which allow them to produce and export corn at prices well below those of rural Mexican farmers, who often do not receive government subsidies.  According to the mayor of Pajacuaran, "With the start of NAFTA...farmers could not compete."

The film also examines politics in Mexico, which have become corrupt, due to a complex host of reasons.  Many people in the film discuss the fact that government subsidies exist to help small farmers and business owners, but these subsidies and programs go to benefit the interests of the politicians and not the people.  Erika, who owns a small clothing company in Pajacuaran, managed to receive government help because she personally knew someone in the Ministry of Rural Development.  "It depends who is in power, which political party," she said, "Often they don't tell people about funding that is available."  Javier, a former farmer who lost his farm as a result of NAFTA, said, "We don't have any government support.  We're forgotten."  Francisco, an internet cafe owner, said, "The system is set up so that every six years you forget you got screwed."

One of the benefits of a film like this is that it takes an issue that has become an abstract political debate, and humanizes it, makes it about real people with real hopes and dreams, and real families.  The effect of immigration on families in Pajacuaran is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the film.  "I don't know who suffers more--those who cross the border or those who stay behind," said Carolina, whose husband Javier has immigrated several times to the United States.  The effect on families is that children often grow up with absent fathers, and families are divided for long stretches of time, sometimes permanently.

Carolina has't seen her daughter for seven years, since she immigrated to the US, because she fears re-crossing the border.  She recalls a phone call she received late one night from her daughter.  "Mom, I feel like a prisoner in my own home, so much pressure--I want to die," her daughter said.  "I wanted to fly, to be with her, to hug her," Carolina said, "But I can't."

Javier, and thousands like him, did not choose to be separated from his family, to risk his life crossing the perilous desert of northern Mexico, into the United States.  If given another option, he would not choose to pay a smuggler thousands of dollars he can barely afford, three months wages, risking imprisonment or death, to cross the border into a country where he will live the poorest of neighborhoods, 10 or 12 to an apartment, working labor jobs for 12 hours a day.  No one would choose this life, if given another option.  It is necessity, it is survival.

Whatever your personal politics, we can all agree that the current U.S./Mexico immigration situation is not the best of all possible worlds.  The film ends with a section called "The Way Forward."  There is not one simple "easy fix" to the problem.  As one person says, "The problem is global."  However, some ways to improve the situation would be expansion of a U.S./Mexico work visa program.  Also, it seems that the "free trade" policies of NAFTA could be amended to promote "fair trade," in which Mexican small farmers and business owners could have a fair shot at competing with U.S. companies, and creating self-sustaining local economies.  As Francisco, the internet cafe owner, says, "There isn't an individual who can save Mexico.  There is a community of people who can do it."

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