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Rural Mexico: Displaced, Exploited, Discriminated

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 2064 words Published: 13th Oct 2021

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Mexican labor in the United States is in a constant disequilibrium of repulsion and attraction; the Bracero Program (1942-1965) and Operation Wetback (1954-?) are lesser-known examples, though they seem more and more relevant as this "dynamic triad" of NAFTA, anti-immigration legislature in dawn of the 21st century. The reserve army of labor, according to Marx, is a population perpetually displaced from their means of subsistence by various economic developments, which both derives from and contributes to capitalist accumulation (Marx, p.781-794).

This concept provides a useful framework for systematic analysis of emigration. The implications of this discovery, particularly with regard to advancement in technology, are of tremendous importance for our understanding of the commonly obfuscated cause of ​forced migration. In Chapter 15 of Capital, Marx writes,

"[...] machinery throws workers onto the streets, not only in that branch of production into which it has been introduced, but also in branches into which it has not been introduced" (p.567)

"As soon as machinery has set [sic] free a part of the workers employed in a given industry, the reserve men are also diverted into new channels of employment, and become absorbed into those branches; meanwhile the original victims, during the period of transition, for the most part starve and perish." (p. 568)

This is of vital importance in understanding the events of twentieth-century Mexico, and the foundation of mass displacement of its population. This contradiction, notably affected by the town-country divide, is to be seen in Mexico, and lets us begin with an analysis of market-induced (read: forced) migration.

Throughout the industrialization of agriculture from the 1930s-1960 (though especially from 1950-1960), Mexico's agricultural production became increasingly centralized into large farms incorporating heavy machinery, effectively displacing a significant portion of the small and subsistence farmers in the agricultural sector (Ballance, p.298). Subsistence farming experienced a contraction in their agricultural output and gains from the market while the productivity and wealth increasingly centralized in larger farms (Ibid.); many farmers were displaced and sought work in the manufacturing sectors of the economy or to sell their labor to US agribusiness via the Bracero program, as is observed in cross-analysis of internal migration to certain Mexican states (notably the industrialized Federal District and Northern Pacific states close to the US border) and the portion of contracts by region.

"In 1940 10.6 percent of the nation's population was residing in a state other than its state of birth. By 1960 this percentage had risen to 14.9. [...] The central part of the country, where rural population density is considerable and economic conditions are poor, has been the source of relatively much out-migration." (Greenwood, Ladman, 1981)

The Bracero program began in 1942; for the US it was a means of contracting cheap, experienced​ labor while Americans were drafted to fight in the war (mimicking a similar legislature in similar circumstances in World War 1), for Mexico it was a means of compensating for a population displaced by centralization of market forces in the countryside which its industrial sector could not handle. Records show that urban municipality in-migration increased by 69.7%, whereas rural municipality only rose 26.5%. (Whetten, Nathan and Robert Burnight, 1956) From 1942-1946, the Federal District (which saw an 18.5% gain in the population from migrants in the 40s (Ibid). provided 44.6% of the total of 323,232 Braceros, though this trend shifted in 1951-1964 when the centralization of farms reached its height (Ballance, 1972) and certain rural sectors had direct access to recruitment centers (Mize, Ronald L. and Alicia C.S. Swords, p.9). Even by 1960, manufacturing only accounted for 13% of employment (William E. Cole and Richard D. Sanders, qtd. in Ballance), which wouldn't be alleviated until a focus on industrialization in the late '60s.

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During the height of agricultural productive advancements in the 1950s (and, by extension, the displacement of small-scale agriculture in Mexico), the United States would adopt a total of 4,000,000 Bracero contracts, as opposed to the total of 300,000 in the decade prior (Mize, Ronald L. and Alicia C. S. Swords p.9). These timelines match up with American Journal of Economics and Sociology data on the extent of agricultural industrialization from 1939-1959, " A downward trend in the percentage changes for private farms less than five hectaresis evident. This particular group constitutes an overwhelming majority of the Nation's total number of farms which explains similar movements in the Percentages referring to all private farms. The growing number of private units over 500 hectares is also of interest." (Ballance, 1972)

The United States' leniency with regards to labor being contracted in banned states (such as Texas, which was formally banned as a contract location by Mexico due to the former's abhorrent racism) caused US growers either transfering Bracero contractors from legal states to illegal ones, or to simply contracting undocumented laborers direct to go largely overlooked from any sort of legal reprecurssions (Mize, Ronald L., and Alicia C. S. Swords, p.33-34). The hesitancy to punish growers and willingness to scapegoat laborers foreshadowed the United States resort to repatriation in a policy infamously known as 1954's Operation Wetback. During these years (paradoxically while the Bracero program was in its heyday) the United States passed legislature targeted undocumented workers (not the employers, who wouldn't be punished for "​knowingly​" hiring undocumented labor until the mid-80s) via mass deportation.. According to the INS, an estimated 1.3 million workers were deported to Mexico in 1954, though the legitimacy of these figures are debatable (Mize, Ronald L., and Alicia C. S. Sword, p.35.)

Thus far, considerations have been limited to the effects of the post-Revolution agricultural industrialization campaigns followed by the effective displacement of the rural population providing a source of cheap and experienced labor for the US. The US' following repatriation, or "removal", campaign targeting undocumented migrants whom US agribusiness themselves would contract as a workaround to state-wide blacklists (Mize, Ronald L., and Alicia C. S. Swords, p.33). We must call this, the displacement, the absorption of cheap and disposable labor into the imperial core, followed by targeted, the state-sanctioned violence, what it is: a pattern​. A pattern arising from the process of capitalist accumulation and centralization. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) proved to be a brutal extension of this pattern of class struggle in the countryside. Mexico suffered a crisis in the 1980s and was pressured to undertake massive economic reform focusing on imports and privatization with minimal state intervention: neo-liberalization.

"[President Carlos Salinas de Gortari] planned to achieve this sustained growth by boosting the investment share of GDP and by encouraging private investment through denationalization of state enterprises and deregulation of the economy. [...] Salinas took his next step toward higher capital inflows by lowering domestic borrowing costs, reprivatizing the banking system, and broaching the idea of a free-trade agreement with the United States." (Merrill and Miró, 1996)

The joining of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1986 resulted in a massive decrease in tariffs (a proclaimed developing country's tariff was ​20%​ for agricultural products not even a year after its signing (de Ita, 1999)) combined with massive reductions in Mexican subsidies as a requirement for joining NAFTA (Ibid.) made penetration by foreign investors and the respective market competition inevitable. The US saw this as an opportunity around the "issue" of its heavily unionized work-force (a high labor cost, allegedly slowing productivity growth in comparison to other economies of the day) of the mid-twentieth century by exporting capital to exploit cheap labor (Otero, G,. p.387) These conditions only accelerated under NAFTA, wherein the aforementioned 20% agricultural tariff was completely eliminated (de Ita, 1999). The effects of this extended policy of dependency on the US in Mexico's agricultural sector are shown by Otero:

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"Agricultural trade liberalization in Mexico has caused a big shift to high-value fruit and vegetable production for export over that of lower-value food grains for the domestic market; imports that have heavy subsidies for U.S. farmers. [...] Mexico had become dependent on the United States for the importation of some of its most critical foodstuffs, including maize and meat, two of the leading agricultural imports.

[...] the invasion of U.S. grain has led to the bankruptcy of a huge number of Mexican peasants, whereas the increase in vegetables and fruit exports from Mexico has not been enough to generate employment for peasants that became redundant. [...] Agricultural liberalization, then, has provoked the greatest population exodus that Mexico's countryside has experienced in its history." (Otero, G., p.391​.​)

At the risk of excessive digression, these are the conditions provoking the factors of forced migration in 20th century post-WW2 rural Mexico, and the womb from which the mass migration of the 1990s-2010s emerged. The US, though it effectively flushed out native Mexicans from their homes and means of subsistence via economic policy, largely claims "not guilty" as it continues to heavily exploit (and displace) Mexicans while closing its borders and pointing its guns outward to any who dare enter. The United States' usage of concentration camps, family separation, workplace raids, and small slaps on the wrist of employers mirrors almost word-for-word Operation Wetback in 1954; this is made doubly insulting by the fact that the legislature in both cases has been largely incited by American capitalists to the detriment of the displaced Mexican population. An immediate end to this predatory policy is ​necessary​, preferably with full legalization for all workers in order to attain livable, fair wages. US economic policy coupled with anti-immigration policy created a "feedback loop" which can only be undone by a complete renunciation of the contradiction.

Work Cited

Mize, Ronald L., and Alicia C. S. Swords. ​Consuming Mexican Labor: from the Bracero Program to NAFTA​. University of Toronto Press, 2011.

Whetten, Nathan L. .., and Robert G. .. Burnight. "Internal Migration in Mexico." ​Rural Sociology​, vol. 21, no. 2, June 1956, pp. 140–151. ​EBSCOhost​, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eue&AN=13318385&site=ehost-live.

Otero, Gerardo. "Neoliberal Globalization, NAFTA, and Migration: Mexico's Loss of Food and Labor Sovereignty." ​Journal of Poverty​, vol. 15, no. 4, 17 Oct. 2011, pp. 384–402., doi:​https://doi.org/10.1080/10875549.2011.614514

Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1867. London: Penguin Group, 1976

Ballance, R. H. "Mexican Agricultural Policies and Subsistence Farming." ​The American Journal of Economics and Sociology​, vol. 31, no. 3, 1972, pp. 295–306. ​JSTOR​, www.jstor.org/stable/3485942.

Tim L. Merrill and Ramón Miró, editors. ​Mexico: A Country Study​. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1996.

de Ita, Ana. "The Impact of Liberalization of Agriculture in Mexico: from the GATT to NAFTA." ​Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy​, 20 Apr. 1999, https://www.iatp.org/sites/default/files/Impact_of_Liberalization_of_Agriculture_in_Mex.htm.


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