How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration
by David Bacon
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation. Some names of the people profiled in this article have been changed.
Roberto Ortega tried to make a living slaughtering pigs in Veracruz, Mexico. “In my town, Las Choapas, after I killed a pig, I would cut it up to sell the meat,” he recalls. But in the late 1990s, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) opened up Mexican markets to massive pork imports from US companies like Smithfield Foods, Ortega and other small-scale butchers in Mexico were devastated by the drop in prices. “Whatever I could do to make money, I did,” Ortega explains. “But I could never make enough for us to survive.” In 1999 he came to the United States, where he again slaughtered pigs for a living. This time, though, he did it as a worker in the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
His new employer? Smithfield—the same company whose imports helped to drive small butchers like him out of business in Mexico.
David Ceja, another immigrant from Veracruz who wound up in Tar Heel, recalls, “Sometimes the price of a pig was enough to buy what we needed, but then it wasn’t. Farm prices were always going down. We couldn’t pay for electricity, so we’d just use candles. Everyone was hurting almost all the time.”
Ceja remembers that his family had ten cows, as well as pigs and chickens, when he was growing up. Even then, he still had to work, and they sometimes went hungry. “But we could give milk to people who came asking for it. There were people even worse off than us,” he recalls.
In 1999, when Ceja was 18, he left his family’s farm in Martinez de la Torre, in northern Veracruz. His parents sold four cows and two hectares of land, and came up with enough money to get him to the border. There he found a coyote who took him across for $1,200. “I didn’t really want to leave, but I felt I had to,” he remembers. “I was afraid, but our need was so great.”
He arrived in Texas, still owing for the passage. “I couldn’t find work for three months. I was desperate,” he says. He feared the consequences if he couldn’t pay, and took whatever work he could find until he finally reached North Carolina. There friends helped him get a real job at Smithfield’s Tar Heel packinghouse. “The boys I played with as a kid are all in the US,” he says. “I’d see many of them working in the plant.”
North Carolina became the number-one US destination for Veracruz’s displaced farmers. Many got jobs at Smithfield, and some, like Ortega and Ceja, helped lead the sixteen-year fight that finally brought in a union there. But they paid a high price. Asserting their rights also made them the targets of harsh immigration enforcement and a growing wave of hostility toward Mexicans in the American South.
The experience of Veracruz migrants reveals a close connection between US investment and trade deals in Mexico and the displacement and migration of its people. For nearly two decades, Smithfield has used NAFTA and the forces it unleashed to become the world’s largest packer and processor of hogs and pork. But the conditions in Veracruz that helped Smithfield make high profits plunged thousands of rural residents into poverty. Tens of thousands left Mexico, many eventually helping Smithfield’s bottom line once again by working for low wages on its US meatpacking lines. “The free trade agreement was the cause of our problems,” Ceja says.
Smithfield Goes to Mexico—and Migrants Come Here
In 1993 Carroll Foods, a giant hog-raising corporation, partnered with a Mexican agribusiness enterprise to set up a huge pig farm known as Granjas Carroll de Mexico (GCM) in Veracruz’s Perote Valley. Smithfield, which had a longtime partnership with Carroll Foods, bought the company out in 1999.
By 2008 the Perote operation was sending close to a million pigs to slaughter every year—85 percent to Mexico City and the rest to surrounding Mexican states. Because of its location in the mountains above the city of Veracruz, Mexico’s largest port, the operation could easily receive imported corn for feed, which makes up two-thirds of the cost of raising hogs. NAFTA lifted the barriers on Smithfield’s ability to import feed. This gave it an enormous advantage over Mexican producers, as US corn, heavily subsidized by US farm bills, was much cheaper. “After NAFTA,” says Timothy Wise, of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, US corn “was priced 19 percent below the cost of production.”
But Smithfield didn’t just import feed into Mexico. NAFTA allowed it to import pork as well.
According to Alejandro Ramírez, general director of the Confederation of Mexican Pork Producers, Mexico imported 30,000 tons of pork in 1995, the year after NAFTA took effect. By 2010 pork imports, almost all from the United States, had grown more than twenty-five times, to 811,000 tons. As a result, pork prices received by Mexican producers dropped 56 percent. US pork exports are dominated by the largest companies. Wise estimates that Smithfield’s share of this export market is significantly greater than its 27 percent share of US production.
Imported pork had a dramatic effect on Mexican jobs. “We lost 4,000 pig farms,” Ramírez estimates, based on reports received by the confederation from its members. “On Mexican farms, each 100 animals produce five jobs, so we lost 20,000 farm jobs directly from imports. Counting the five indirect jobs dependent on each direct job, we lost over 120,000 jobs in total.”
“That produces migration to the US or to Mexican cities,” Ramírez charges.
Corn imports also rose, from 2 million to 10.3 million tons from 1992 to 2008. “Small Mexican farmers got hit with a double whammy,” Wise explains. “On the one hand, competitors were importing pork. On the other, they were producing cheaper hogs.” Smithfield was both producer and importer. Wise estimates that this one company supplies 25 percent of all the pork sold in Mexico.
The increases in pork and corn imports were among many economic changes brought about by NAFTA and concurrent neoliberal reforms to the Mexican economy, such as ending land reform. Companies like Smithfield benefited from these changes, but poverty increased also, especially in the countryside.
In a 2005 study for the Mexican government, the World Bank found that the extreme rural poverty rate of 35 percent in 1992–94, before NAFTA, jumped to 55 percent in 1996–98, after NAFTA took effect—the years when Ortega and Ceja left Mexico. This could be explained, the report said, “mainly by the 1995 economic crisis, the sluggish performance of agriculture, stagnant rural wages, and falling real agricultural prices.”
By 2010, according to the Monterrey Institute of Technology, 53 million Mexicans were living in poverty—half the country’s population. About 20 percent live in extreme poverty, almost all in rural areas.
The growth of poverty, in turn, fueled migration. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the United States. A decade later, that population had more than doubled to 9.75 million, and in 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million. About 5.7 million were able to get some kind of visa; another 7 million couldn’t but came nevertheless.
As an agricultural state, Veracruz suffered from Mexico’s abandonment of two important policies, which also helped fuel migration. First, neoliberal reforms did away with Tabamex, a national marketing program for small tobacco farmers. A similar program for coffee growers ended just as world coffee prices plunged to record lows. Second, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the country’s corrupt president, pushed through changes to Article 27 of the Constitution in 1992, dismantling land reform and allowing the sale of ejidos, or common lands, as private property.
Waves of tobacco and coffee farmers sold their land because they could no longer make a living on it. Many became migrants. But allowing the sale of ejidos to foreigners made it possible for Carroll Foods to buy land for its swine sheds. Displaced farmers then went to work in those sheds at low wages.
Simultaneous changes in the United States also accelerated migration. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, passed by Congress in 1986, expanded the existing H2-A visa program, creating the current H2-A program, which allows US agricultural employers to bring in workers from Mexico and other countries, giving them temporary visas tied to employment contracts. Growers in North Carolina became large users of the program, especially through the North Carolina Growers Association. Landless tobacco farmers from Veracruz became migrant tobacco workers in the Carolinas.
“Many Veracruzanos came because we were offered work in the tobacco fields, where we had experience,” remembers Miguel Huerta. “Then people who’d been contracted just stayed, because they didn’t have anything in Mexico to go back to. After the tobacco harvest, workers spread out to other industries.”
From Huerta’s perspective, “these companies are very powerful. They can go to Mexico and bring as many employees as they want and replace them when they want.” Poverty, though, was the real recruiter. It created, as Ceja says, the need. “We all had to leave Veracruz because of it,” he emphasizes. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t do something so hard.
Exporting the Hazards of Corporate Hog Raising