Acton Commentary

Corn Subsidies at Root of U.S.-Mexico Immigration Problems


America’s immigration debate will never be adequately addressed until we think clearly about the economic incentives that encourage Mexican citizens to risk their lives to cross the border. In fact, if we care about human dignity we must think comprehensively about the conditions for human flourishing so that the effective policies promote the common good. Sadly, U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.

Dr. Seth M. Holmes, a professor of Health and Social Behavior at the University of California -- Berkeley, identified the source of the problem in his watershed 2006 paper, “An Ethnographic Study of the Social Context of Migrant Health in the United States.” In the study we learn that 95 percent of agricultural workers in the United States were born in Mexico and 52 percent are undocumented. Most researchers agree that inequalities in the global market make up the primary driving force of labor migration patterns. Mexico’s current minimum wage is US$4.60 per day. In contrast, the US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, while it is $7.65 in Arizona, $8 in California, $7.50 in New Mexico, and $7.25 in Texas.

The 2003 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deregulated all agricultural trade, except for corn and dairy products. The Mexican government complains that since NAFTA’s initial implementation in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent. As a result, Mexican corn farmers, who comprise the majority of the country’s agricultural sector, experienced drastic declines in the domestic price of their product. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States began to experience an influx of Mexicans looking for employment in the latter half of the 1990s. Mexican farmers are now rightly protesting because they cannot compete against prices that are artificially deflated for the sake of protecting Americans from necessary market corrections.

Holmes explains that migrant and seasonal farm workers suffer the poorest health status within the agriculture industry. For example, migrant workers have increased rates of many chronic conditions, such as HIV infection, malnutrition, anemia, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, sterility, blood disorders, and abnormalities in liver and kidney function. This population has an increased incidence of acute sicknesses such as urinary tract and kidney infections, lung infections, heat stroke, anthrax, encephalitis, rabies, and tetanus. Tuberculosis prevalence is six times greater in this population than in the general United States population. Finally, Holmes reports, children of migrant farm workers show high rates of malnutrition, vision problems, dental problems, anemia, and excess blood lead levels.

Economically speaking, Mexico's central bank recently announced that the $22.7 billion in remittances that Mexican migrant workers sent home from the United States in 2011 increased by 6.86 percent over the previous year.  Remittances are Mexico's second-largest source of foreign income following oil exports. Nearly all of that the money comes from the United States, with a Mexican citizen population of 12 million.

Can you imagine what would happen if the United States had no farm subsidies, Mexican farms were flourishing, and $22.7 billion was generated within Mexico’s economy to catalyze more wealth creating opportunities? We can only dream at present, but one thing is for certain: Mexican migrant workers would be far better off. As such, through federal corn farm subsidies, America’s government is morally culpable for the oppression, dehumanization, and poor health of Mexican migrant workers.

Mexican migrant workers are sick and dying because politicians create perverse and immoral incentives by interfering with the market. Ignoring the dignity of Mexican workers and the common good, they instead pander to a powerful special interest group, the corn lobby. What Mexico needs from U.S. political leaders is the fortitude to let market mechanisms foster human flourishing in Mexico so that families do not have to the suffer the hazards of migrancy. In sum, it would be better for both countries if the Mexican economy were not sabotaged by the politics of protectionism.