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Globalization as a people mover

In Mexico, the domino effect of free trade policy launches a cascade of migrants leaving the country

By Elizabeth Havice | About the writer

Cancún policeman in riot gear at the WTO's 5th ministerial meeting. (Salón Chingón photo)

Wearing spotless white shoes and crisply pressed hotel uniforms with shiny name tags, my fellow passengers peered out the windows of the rusty bus. The air was oppressively heavy and damp. I watched as beads of sweat yielded to gravity on the back of my nearest neighbor's neck. Eventually the bus would deliver us from the chaos of the city to the landscaped, tranquil grounds and sandy shores of one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. But at the moment, we remained stationary, trapped in traffic by crowds of protesters and young police officers in the dark, synthetic materials of riot gear.

The problem was that the bus's destination — the normally placid, stress-free hotel zone in Cancún, Mexico — had been transformed into the highly militarized site of the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting. As we waited for traffic to clear, or for the security forces to check our identification cards for the fourth time, I made conversation with the man sitting next to me. I asked him what he thought of the WTO's visit to his country. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he replied, "It's taking me much longer to get to work." He had moved to Cancún only a year ago, leaving his family and his failing farm behind for a job clearing dishes in one of the many famous beach resorts. In essence, he was seeking the economic independence offered by the global economy — the very global economy that, embodied by the WTO, had him trapped on the bus missing valuable hours of work.

My bus companion, and what he represents — the uncertainty of the chase to capture the potential economic gains offered by a global world, whether the seeker is an individual or a developing nation — is at the heart of my interest in studying the relationship between free trade and development.

This year, the 10th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the discrepancies between free trade policy objectives and its practical realities have moved to the forefront of the debate over the costs and benefits associated with the global economy. No discrepancy is more striking than the role that unskilled laborers, migrating in search of jobs, play in realizing the economic potential of the free trading system.

Although formally excluded from the rules of free trade, the number of undocumented migrants sending money back to Mexico has increased significantly since the signing of NAFTA. Today almost $17 billion in remittances travels from the United States to Mexico each year, making the entire nation dependent upon funds from abroad for economic growth. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this pattern is that migrants, and the money that they send home, are increasingly categorized as one of the many economic gains of free trade — a categorization that creates an important link between free trade policy and the discourse of economic development.

'It's vital that we not only understand the economic characteristics of migratory patterns, but the human ones.'
-Elizabeth Havice

The result is that unwillingly or unknowingly, migrants act as the bridge between free trade and the broader goal of economic development. The link between remittance dollars and national economic development has become powerful enough to catch the attention of actors such as the Mexican government and the World Bank, who are now creating and implementing programs that encourage migration solely to maximize the economic growth that it generates.

Free trade policy, and more recent policies that encourage migration, have largely been set without taking into consideration the environmental and economic disruptions wrought by free trade that in turn can act as factors that drive migration. Further, and more importantly, such policies have been made without considering the social ramifications that booming migration has on local communities. Add the human rights abuses that occur along the migration path, and the reliance on migration as an equitable and sustainable strategy for development becomes further tainted.

As a doctoral student at UC Berkeley, I am investigating the ways in which national and international policy regulates, promotes, or prohibits the migration of unskilled labor in order to achieve development goals in a larger free trading system. It's vital that we not only understand the economic characteristics of migratory patterns, but the human ones. If policy makers are to turn to migrants to help in the country's struggle for economic growth, policy makers, too, must take an active role in ensuring that migrants are protected and supported. We must also understand the larger context of environmental, social and political change in an era of globalization. As a student in the department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM), I have a particular interest in how this complex set of dynamics unfolds around large-scale agricultural developments that alter traditional land-use practices and cut off individuals from natural resources.

 Map of Mexico

This summer, through a summer research grant from the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley and the assistance of Sinfronteras, a Mexico-based, non-governmental organization working for migrant rights, I will study this conundrum with two primary focuses. Working both in Mexico City and rural areas, I will conduct in-depth interviews with migrants who have traveled to the United States and returned to their home communities; potential migrants; and individuals who have family and community members in the United States. Through these conversations, I hope to learn why people leave their families and homes in search of work abroad, as well as what individual challenges migrants face along their path.

The second aspect of my research involves an intensive study of migration and economic policies as they emerge from the Mexican and U.S. governments, civil society groups, and the international community. I expect this to be the vital connection for unraveling discrepancies between policy and practice. I believe that if globalization, in the form of NAFTA-style economic integration, is to act as a development strategy that considers both environmental and social integrity in the context of economic growth, there must be cohesive cooperation among actors at a number of policy levels.

The importance of addressing this topic cannot be underestimated. Global integration is expanding: the recent signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and current negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) will further integrate the economies of the Western Hemisphere, initiate environmental changes, and create push-and-pull factors that expand international human migration. Broadly speaking, I seek to use a case study in Mexico as a prism for understanding these social, economic, and environmental changes as they emerge in the global economy, as well as for identifying the sources of such changes. Most significantly, I would like to define alternatives to a free-trade system based solely on economic growth - replacing it with one that also values human and environmental integrity.

— Elizabeth

Elizabeth Havice is a 2004 Summer Fellow of UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center.