Rinku Sen: Old Economic Policies Shape Today’s Migration Tragedies

By Rinku Sen May 01, 2014

In "The Accidental American," I write about Apolinar Salas, who had been a dishwasher and prep cook in New York City restaurants for more than a decade when I met him. Salas had grown up on his family’s two-acre farm in Puebla, Mexico, where they grew beans, corn and peanuts. They used to grow just what they needed to eat and to sell at local markets to earn enough for school clothes, supplies, medicine and other necessities. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) changed Salas’ life forever, bringing subsidized corn products from the U.S. into Mexico, raising the price of food, and pushing 2 million small farmers like Salas out of business. The government offered subsidies for growing sugar cane instead, but, as Salas told me, "you can’t eat sugar cane." So he left for New York City, where he joined many people from the state of Puebla working in restaurants.

On May 1, the day that most of the world celebrates workers, thousands of immigrants across the United States will march for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, having made it an annual tradition of showing immigrant power. It is a day that, if we chose to, we could acknowledge the ways in which workers across the world are struggling to migrate as freely as corporations do.

I remembered Salas’ story last weekend as I was watching "Who is Dayani Cristal?," a new film by Marc Silver* and Gael Garcia Bernal. Silver had started working with the Tucson Medical Examiner’s office to document the search for bodies of migrants in the Arizona desert. The ME’s office keeps remains often for several years, working with Mexican and Central American governments to identify as many as possible. On his first day of filming, Silver was witness to the recovery of a man’s body with a tattoo that said "Dayani Cristal."

The film follows two storylines in tandem. The first is the ME’s office efforts to solve the mystery of this man’s identity, and the return of his body to his family. The second is the tracking of Bernal’s re-creation of the migrant’s journey through Central America and Mexico to get to the United States.The bearer of the tattoo turns out to be a Honduran migrant named Dilcy Yohan Sandres Martinez , who had his daughter’s name tattooed. Through interviews with Martinez’s wife, brother and father, we learn that he was a small farmer of corn and beans, just like Apolinar Salas.

Martinez had been thinking of leaving Honduras for some time, but when his son was diagnosed with leukemia his decision was set. "I have to go. It’s the only way," he told his wife. He’d crossed the border and been deported at least once before (this is the fact that eventually enabled the ME’s office to identify him). Through Bernal’s eyes, we trace his journey. This part of the film is a little discomfiting, as the New York Times put it. Bernal is so famous throughout Latin America that it’s hard to imagine all the migrants he travels with not knowing him, and the contrast between his persona and the hard realities of a journey that ended in Martinez’s death can cause a bit of a psychic break for the viewer. For example, while he rides The Beast – the train that cuts through Mexico with dozens of migrants on the roofs struggling not to fall under the wheels – he notes the danger, but emphasizes the beauty of the landscape and the brotherhood of shared watermelon and pineapple. We are ever aware that this is not Bernal’s life, even as we want to give him credit for immersing himself in the experience.

Nonetheless, the facts of the crossing become clear. It has become increasingly dangerous. Just about the same time that NAFTA passed, the Clinton Administration also instituted tougher border controls, cutting off with layers of fences the safer crossings in Texas and California, which forced determined migrants to enter the punishing Arizona desert instead. Before 2000, the Pima County ME’s office had collected fewer than 20 bodies annually. Since 2001, the yearly count reached 200. Some of the most moving portions of the film come from interviews with Martinez’s companions on that trip. He began to get really sick from dehydration and heat, having trouble walking. They stuck by him, each taking an arm to help him walk. Finally, when he couldn’t even stand up, he told them to leave him, that he was going to die, and that they should look after themselves. They covered him with a light jacket, left him with some water, and kept going with thoughts of their own families driving them.

This is the thing that is so frustrating about our immigration policy debate. We hold it as though it is domestic policy only, as though it has no relationship to U.S. foreign policy and global economic behavior. The Bush Administration signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005. While CAFTA has some more labor protections than NAFTA did, it did the same essential thing – subsidized U.S. food producers, shifted the Honduran economy toward manufacturing for export, and generated lots of unemployment replaced only partially by low-wage factory work.

It is possible to talk about immigration in the full context, but doing so would require a real hard look at the behavior of U.S. and multinational corporations. That full discussion might alienate some of the business interests who have thrown down support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, because it would bring a level of scrutiny to their own global operations that might surface practices that are, if not illegal, difficult to swallow, like the union-busting that took place at Alcoa plants in Mexico and Central America.

As long as this is what the U.S. is generating in Latin America, migrants are going to do whatever it takes to get across the border and support their families. It will not matter how many people die, how difficult it is to be undocumented, or how painful it is to be separated from one’s family. Knowing the greater dangers of crossing now, Apolinar Salas knows that he has been lucky. He made it across the border at a safer time, and one of his employers sponsored him for a green card in the early 2000s. But if he was in Mexico, assessing the wisdom of getting on The Beast, the question would be the same as it ever was: do I need to go for the survival of self and family? "I did it out of necessity then. If I needed to do it out of necessity again, I would do it," he said.

*Post has been updated since publication