Powdered Eggs Head South, Migrants Head North

Radio Writing

NAFTA turns 20.

Listen to the story on Marketplace here.

Steve Goldstein: In the early 1990s,  President Clinton promised that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create such great jobs in Mexico that Mexicans wouldn’t want or need to illegally immigrate here. But in the two decades since, the number of people living here illegally has nearly quadrupled. As part of our ongoing NAFTA, 20 Years Later series, Fronteras reporter Devin Browne has a story that helps explain the relationship between free trade and migration.

Omar: Let me tell you a story first.

Devin: Omar’s story starts with the story of his father, Armando, who moved from a little pueblo in Michoacan with only a third grade education north to Ciudad Obregon in Sonora, determined to make it.

Omar: He didn’t know nothing about the business.

Devin: Specifically, he didn’t know anything about the catering business, which he decided to go into after reading in the paper that a new manufacturing plant needed a company to make meals for their employees.

Omar: But he was like — I can do it. I can handle it. 

Devin: Omar’s dad borrowed money from friends to buy an industrial kitchen, and built up the business to the point where he could buy a house for his family in cash. This is the Mexico Omar was raised to believe in: a country where success and mobility depended almost entirely on local contacts and a lot of hard work. It was the late 80s. Fast forward to 1992, when things dramatically changed for Omar’s family and small business people and farmers all over Mexico.

Carlos Salinas, in a TV spot: Compatriotas, en 1992…

Devin: This is the then-president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas, selling NAFTA to his countrymen in a TV spot. The trade agreement lifted the tariffs that had long been on U.S. commodities like wheat and corn, making them suddenly very cheap in Mexico. The local suppliers Omar’s dad had been using for years couldn’t compete. And so, neither could Omar’s dad.

Omar: So he couldn’t make it.

Devin: And a different, more industrialized food-supplier took over.

Omar: Instead of using things like eggs, they used powdered eggs, powdered milk… those are things — I had never seen them before. 

Devin: The dream of self-employment now over, Omar’s dad left to work for someone else in Baja. Omar stayed to support his family — taking classes at night to finish high school. He was 14 when he entered the labor force full time.

Omar: I was more prepared than him.

Devin: More prepared than his dad, he means. He knew more about computers. He had more education.

Omar: I had a lot of advantages over him, and it was like 1,000 times harder for me. 

Devin: The Sonora of small, local business owners who might lend a friend start-up money for a business was over. As far as Omar could tell, the only people opening businesses in Sonora after NAFTA were foreigners who had a lot of capital and who understood foreign markets. But even for entry-level positions, a high school diploma suddenly mattered. English mattered. Omar had no idea how he’d ever save enough money to start his own business. He tried working at grocery stores and liquor stores and even the same manufacturing plan where his father had once fed the workers — until one day he runs into a woman there, who’s wearing a badge, with her employee number on it…

Omar: And she had only like 3 digits.

Devin: Meaning that she was one of the first few hundred people hired.

Omar: And I had almost like 6.

Devin: Yet, she told him, their wages were basically the same.

Omar: And I was like wow… I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be like her. I can’t picture that as my future.

Devin: At this point, the only place where it still seemed feasible to make it on hard work alone was the United States, proper documentation or not. Omar moved to Arizona in 2002 and started working first as a day laborer, then for a residential painting company, always illegally. He was not alone — the Pew Hispanic Center estimates the very same year Omar arrived in the U.S., so did about 600,000 other Mexican immigrants — about double the number who came in 1991. The reasons for this are many, but one big reason economic-sociologist Kathleen Schwartzman says, has to do with something called labor displacement that came with NAFTA.

Kathleen: Generally people say that the jobs created in the maquiladoras didn’t compensate for the number of people who were being forced from the countryside. 

Devin: The same cheap imports that cost Omar’s dad his business also cost a lot of small farmers their land.

Kathleen: And that’s one of the sources of the migratory push. Because there wasn’t an adequate match. 

Devin: After 10 years in the states, Omar is finally opening his own business, a painting company. The hurdles Arizona presents — for example, he’s forbidden from professional licensure — are small, compared to the obstacles he watched his dad face post-NAFTA. He’s raising his son to believe in the same U.S. he found in the early 2000s, just as his father raised him to believe in Sonora of the 1980s. But since Omar knows these things tend to change, he also has a back-up plan.

Omar: Well, I will encourage him to learn some Chinese, by the way. You never know.