Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Free Trade Agreements and Migration

July 14, 2014

  Jake Fox, Economic Justice Intern

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34

One of the defining moral issues of our generation is how we treat migrants in our land. As the economic divide between developed and lesser developed nations continues to grow, so does the desire to migrate in order to escape a life of poverty in one’s home nation. One of the leading causes of migration is the economic factors that force individuals to leave their home country in an effort to live a life with dignity.

“The economy must serve people, not the other way around. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”
– From Themes of Catholic Social Teaching by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

Free trade agreements can be a destabilizing economic factor which undermine the rights of workers and lead to their migration. They can cause the destruction of traditional industries, and often result in massive internal and external migration, as individuals migrate to different communities to find jobs. Such an experience can be emotionally overwhelming for migrants as they leave their homes, their friends and families behind in pursuit of work.

We have seen this in Latin America after the passage of NAFTA and CAFTA. Prior to NAFTA, high tariffs on corn protected the subsistence farmers of Southern Mexico from cheap U.S. corn that was produced more efficiently and subsidized by the U.S. government. Once NAFTA passed, U.S. corn flooded Mexican markets and drove Mexican subsistence farmers out of agriculture.

Whereas Mexican farmers were impoverished prior to the passage of NAFTA, they could still claim the dignity that came from growing one’s own food, using traditional methods on ancestral homelands where they had a strong sense of community. After NAFTA, the subsistence farmers experienced a new level of poverty that robbed them of their land, their community and their dignity. Many of these displaced farmers have become undocumented migrants who have tried to come to the United States.

Since 1996, the Columbans have had a presence in El Paso, Texas, a border town that is a major destination for undocumented migrants to the U.S.  At the Columban Mission Center, Father Bob Mosher provides hospitality, spiritual guidance and a voice for undocumented migrants. In the Columban tradition of standing in solidarity with the marginalized, the Center is located in a traditionally immigrant neighborhood known as El Segundo Barrio. The Columban Fathers are part of a community full of first generation migrants from Latin America. They participate in Spanish-language Mass and activities to address the needs of migrants.

One striking symbol is the annual Border Mass, November 2, where individuals in Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, celebrate Mass together, separated only by the border-link fence that marks the border between the two countries. It is a symbol of the border that divides us, and the communion that unites two people in a bond of solidarity.