One of the toughest issues to understand is why would millions of Latin Americans leave their homes families to make an illegal, expensive, dangerous and sometimes deadly journey to the United States?
To the extent this issue is discussed in the public arena, it is usually explored at a surface level, without a deep exploration of the causes or consequences of such migration.
This lack of truth and honesty prompted Ellin Jimmerson, a minister and civil rights activist, with a Ph.D in History, to produce “The Second Cooler”, an award-winning documentary on the immigration problems caused by NAFTA.
In this live chat, Ellin lays out the impact of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) on current U.S, immigration and border affairs policies. She asserts the outcomes of NAFTA were understood at the time the law was signed by then president Bill Clinton.
Despite the massive amounts of deaths which have occurred as migrants seek work in the North, she adds, hardly anyone in power seem to care.
Here are the main points from the hangout with Ellin Jimmerson and Carlos Batara, broadcasting live from his Hemet immigration attorney office in Riverside County.
Ellin Jimmerson’s Road To Immigration Reform Activism
Ellin was born in Atmore, Alabama, near the Gulf Coast, and has lived most of her life in the American South. Her work today was deeply influenced by her parents.
Her father was a lawyer, her mother, a social worker. Both were civil rights activists. Where they lived, the public was strongly opposed to integration.
Civil rights was a topic of conversation every single day in her home. Although she did not engage in demonstrations and rallies, her father would come home and talk about events he had experienced.
Both parents were outspoken in their support of the civil rights movement. She still recalls calls her mother would receive threatening her and and their family members.
Jim Crow laws and segregation were the order of the day in the south. There were areas for “only whites” like public water fountains.
Her family had a black housekeeper who fell down some stairs one day. Ellin’s mother took her to the hospital. The hospital would not accept her even though she was in terrible pain and her leg was broken because she was black. Ellin’s mother was forced to take her to another hospital in a different part of town.
She also remembers riding on trains and public transportation, where she experienced the segregated seating. Today, there is not as much segregation. The bigger problem now is class division.
Connection Between Jim Crow And Jaime Crow Laws
In Alabama, there was a bill, HB 56, which was anti-immigrant. The governor was sued over the law. It became a heated issue.
There are still problems with race. But it is about class and race. Race is certainly a factor, notes Ellin, but another factor that doesn’t get talked enough about is the South’s suspicion of poor people – and a related suspicion of unions for workers.
Alabama has one of the most regressive constitutions in the United States. Corporations are being enticed into poor areas where unions are very weak and they pay no taxes. So the state does not have enough money for education and other social services necessary for the poor.
Recently, many advocates for immigrants want to get more gas off the basin. There are a lot of people who would like to work at jobs making a reasonable wage, with reasonable benefits and incentives. Employers do not to provide these type of benefits, so this leads to the vulnerability of immigrant guest workers.
The new Alabama will say that we love our brown brothers and sisters. But there is a connection to the economics in the state which leaves many people underemployed or underpaid.
Family Immigrant Roots
Ellin’s immigrants roots go way back. She is not really sure her family came from Ireland or England. Her father’s roots are German-Jewish. They came to the United States following the revolution of 1848 in Germany.
They arrived in New York but moved to Georgia were they bought a plantation. They purchased slaves, who were put to work making uniforms for Confederate soldiers.
What Inspired Ellin To Make A Documentary About Migration?
Having grown up as a civil rights activist with a Ph.D. in 20th Century History, Ellin knew a fair amount about the relationship between the United States and Latin America.
When she later graduated from Vanderbilt University, having studied Latin American liberation theology, Ellin understood a lot about the immigration problems in this country but did not have any answers.
She could not explain why there were 12 million people in the country who had arrived illegally. This shortcoming inspired her contribute to a better understanding of immigration issues.
Hoping to figure things out, Ellin decided to go to the border and talk to people there. During her five day stay, she learned about the impact of NAFTA.
When she returned home, she began discussing her findings with University colleagues. After listening to her, they encouraged her to reach a broader audience. Since she was talking about issues which they had never heard, they reasoned others were in the same situation.
As she thought about their suggestion, Ellin decided to make a movie – which she now describes as a naive idea since she had no experience in movie making.
The Second Cooler
The Second Cooler discusses the various perspectives surrounding NAFTA: the effect on the United States, Latin America, and Central America.
The North American Free Trade Agreement removed tariffs big corporations formerly had to pay in order to export their products to Mexico and Central America. In essence, corporations received “subsidies” worth millions of dollars by not having to pay any taxes on their exports.
Now, they could export their products and compete with the small campesinos in Latin America. As a result, peasant farmers of items like corn, who were already operating on slims margin to make ends meet were negatively affected. Many were forced to shut down.
The Mexican agricultural economy was displaced, along with about two million agricultural workers.
Although NAFTA affected all countries involved, the devastation was greatest in Mexico because Mexico was already poor. This outcome was not a surprise to any of the three main governments, Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
NAFTA And Border Militarization
Ellin asserts that the militarization of the U.S. Southwest borders can be directly traced to NAFTA.
Due to the economic displacement of field workers, many started to seek work in the U.S. But the United States did not want them to come freely into the country.
The U.S. wanted to control their movement. They wanted them to stay put in Mexico. This led to more troops on the Southwest borders.
The border is now militarized and many people do not know the border is militarized.
According to Ellin, more militarization is worse than less militarization. It’s an expansion of an economic system of servitude, and a step backwards for the entire immigration system.
The Free Trade Agreement Hurt Some American Companies
Largely, Ellin explains, the NAFTA advantage went to the U.S. producers of corn, beans, and other products. But an advantage also went to Mexican corporate producers for tomatoes.
In Alabama, for example, there is an area called Sand Mountain. Folks from Georgia and other nearby states would travel to Sand Mountain to purchase tomatoes for their restaurants and stores.
However, after NAFTA, subsidized Mexican corporations could now compete with the smaller Alabama companies. This led to worker displacement in Alabama.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), like NAFTA, led to similar economic problems. Due to CAFTA easing tariffs for subsidized corporations, Alabama’s textile industry is facing the same type of economic downsizing as its tomato industry.
In Ellin’s view, when immigration reformers assert immigrants only take jobs Americans don’t want, that’s a bit misleading. It ignores the deeper causes of immigrant field workers.
For instance, in the Second Cooler, there is a scene where a union organizer, trying to negotiate better working conditions, says that even for dangerous jobs, there will be a line of 50 U.S. citizens wanting to be interviewed for only a few openings.
The reality is that employers are going after the most vulnerable laborers, the cheapest laborers, the ones who can’t talk back and can’t walk away.
Ellin emphasizes there are poor workers, living in places like Perry County, Alabama, who would take these jobs but corporations do not seek them out. They look for guest workers and undocumented immigrants.
From the standpoint of immigrants, the biggest difference between guest workers and undocumented immigrants is that guest workers are free to come and go. Their working conditions and pay rates are pretty much the same.
This is one reason why many big employers of immigrants support the guest workers program.
How Economic Factors Influence The U.S. Visa System
The U.S. has two separate legal entry systems. We have one system for Canada and Western Europe and another system for Africa and most parts of Asia and Latin America. The two systems socially and ethnically encoded. It is harder for immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and most parts of Asia. They have to qualify, they have to fit in to one of the above any very narrowly defined boxes in order to get a visa.
This is also class-defined and economic-driven. Campesinos, all those farmers who were displaced, are limited from the outset from coming to the U.S. They have to prove that they have significant employment qualities or money to qualify for permanent residency benefits under employment-based petitions, and most have no means to qualify for family-based visas and green cards.
The Flaw In The Activist Approach To Immigration Reform
Ellin does not believe the immigration reform movement has done a good job of explaining what is really happening.
Illegal immigrants or even documented immigrants holding guest worker visas are not taking the jobs of Americans. The U.S. government has taken their jobs away by passing laws like NAFTA and imposing militarization policies at the border. The big corporations are taking their jobs away by pursuing cheap labor and moving facilities.
Ellin believes to be successful on immigration reform, there has to be some worker solidarity and labor movement to truly tackle these issues.
Immigration activists need to appreciate where citizens are coming . . . what it’s like to have a real hard time finding a job . . . and not being able to pay one’s bills with that job.
And American workers need to understand what’s happened on the Latin American and Central American side of the equation, forcing immigrants to seek work in the U.S.
There has to be some solidarity.
Immigration reformers talk a lot about race. They don’t talk about labor issues much and they don’t talk about class issues enough.
They don’t talk near enough about the enormously widening gap between rich and poor in this country.
In Ellin’s view, these issues are at the core of any real immigration reform solutions.
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By Carlos Batara, Immigration Law, Policy, And Politics