Unauthorized: Why Did They Enter the U.S. without Permission?


U.S. Subsidized Corn Allowed in NAFTA
Put 2 Million Mexican Farmers out of Work


Currently immigrants at risk of deportation comprise unauthorized immigrants, those granted a deferred departure, and immigrants holding green cards who have committed crimes no matter how long ago. The first, are mainly Latino immigrants, who crossed the border to the U.S. for reasons similar to those of the Swedish, Norwegian,1 German and Irish2 immigrants who arrived on our shores three and four generations earlier. These earlier immigrants came for the opportunity to own farmland in the 19th century and for industrial and mining jobs in the early 20th century, and sometimes for religious freedom. They were not required to have visas, and did not undergo a long vetting process before they were allowed to enter our country, but registered upon their arrival at Ellis Island.


corn on the cob mixed colorMexican immigration increased following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which allowed the U.S. to subsidize corn that industrial agriculture companies exported to Mexico at 19% below the cost of production.3 NAFTA put around two million Mexican farmers out of work,4 as cheap, subsidized5U.S. corn imports shot up from 2 million tons in 1992, two years before the treaty, to 10.3 million tons in 2008. Monthly income for self-employed farmers in Mexico fell from 1959 pesos a month in 1991 to 228 pesos a month in 2003. (See One America Power Point Presentation here.)  Mexico's pork imports increased 25 times6 from 30,000 tons in 1995 to 811,000 tons in 2010. The steep loss in farm jobs led to the loss of additional jobs for other workers who had served the needs of Mexican farmers.


The increased migration of displaced Mexican corn farmers was predicted by Karen Lehman,7 Senior Fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), when NAFTA was under consideration by Congress in 1993. NAFTA was designed by large corporations and industrial agricultural businesses without regard to how the trade policies would impact local communities. R. Dennis Olson, Senior Analyst at IATP wrote,"NAFTA has greatly benefited transnational agribusiness at the expense of farmers, consumers, and sustainable food systems. While Mexican farmers lost most of the profit they had been making and the U.S. lost 245,000 or 22% of small scale farmers (under $350,000 gross income), Cargill's profit increased by 660% from 1998-1999 to 2007-2008.9The U.S. Farm Bureau, reports that U.S. agriculture depends on 1.5 to 2 million farm workers. 50 to 70% of them are unauthorized, p. 710 and in MN, comprise 51% of laborers on dairy farms.10  The following chart shows the migration of Mexicans that occurred after NAFTA and before the recession.


migration mexicous

 Chart from Ben Lilliston, "NAFTA Renegotiation: What's at stake for food, farmers, and the land," the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2017, p. 7.

Josh Wise, Development and Communications Director at IATP, cautioned on July 17, 201711 that the NAFTA agreement currently under development "will do nothing to incentivize food production that will protect the livelihoods of farmers, the safety of consumers, or the health of the planet. . . . R. Dennis Olson at IATP emphasizes that "This is simply not a viable model for a fair trading system that puts people’s well-being first."



1. ”Scandinavian Immigration." U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library, edited by Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 1: Vol. 1: Almanac, UXL, 2004, pp. 283-313. U.S. History in Context, Accessed July 25, 2017 

2. USHistory.org.  “Irish and German Immigration.”  U.S. History Online Textbook.  Accessed, July 25, 2017.    http://www.ushistory.org/us/25f.asp

3. Jayapal, Pramila, One America Executive Director.  “Root Causes of Immigration - NAFTA.”  One America with Justice for All, February 13, 2011.    


4. Robbins, Ted.  “Wave of Illegal Immigrants Gains Speed After NAFTA.”  NPR, Morning Edition, December 26, 2013.   http://www.npr.org/2013/12/26/257255787/wave-of-illegal-immigrants-gains-speed-after-nafta

5. Fox, Jonathan and Haight, Libby.  Subsidizing Inequality:  Mexican Corn Policy Since NAFTA.  Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas, University of California, Santa Cruz, 2010.   https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Subsidizing%20Inequality_0.pdf

6. Bacon, David.  “How U.S. Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration.”  The Nation, January 23, 2012.


7. Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Undocumented farmworkers and the U.S. agribusiness economic model.”


8. Olson, R. Dennis.  “Lessons from NAFTA:  Food and Agriculture.”  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, December 2, 2008.   https://www.iatp.org/sites/default/files/451_2_104576.pdf


9.  Lilliston, Ben. “NAFTA Renegotiation:  What’s at stake for food, farmers, and the land?”  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,  August, 2017.  https://www.iatp.org/nafta-renegotiation

10.  “The Contributions of New Americans in Minnesota.”  New American Economy, 2016, p. 27


11.  Wise, Josh.  “NAFTA renegotiation objectives fall short for farmers and the planet.”  Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, July 17, 2017.