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If Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina is so concerned about illegal immigration and the possibility that migrants might buy government sponsored health insurance then he should stop pushing for free trade agreements in Latin America. It’s an important point which has been lost on Wilson’s narrow-minded GOP followers who admire the legislator for confronting President Obama during the latter’s recent address to a joint session of Congress. For the xenophobic Republican fringe, Wilson is a hero for calling out “you lie!” when Obama denied that his insurance plan would provide free coverage to illegal immigrants.
Those same fanatical right wingers however never pause to consider why so many migrants are coming to the U.S. in the first place. Many come from troubled nations in Central America, a region plagued by ever worsening poverty. If the U.S. is truly serious about stanching the flow of migrants from such countries as El Salvador and Nicaragua then it must provide serious financial aid and poverty relief. Instead however Washington has pushed for relentless corporately-friendly free trade, a policy which has exacerbated poverty and led to more migration to the United States.
A political hypocrite, Joe Wilson supports U.S. free trade while opportunistically exploiting racist fears. In 2005, he voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA which eliminated all tariffs on 80 percent of U.S. manufactured goods. The agreement was not limited to manufactured goods but covered virtually every type of trade and commercial exchange between Central American countries and the United States.
CAFTA formed part of the failed “neo-liberal” corporate agenda in Latin America which resulted in a race to the bottom in labor and environmental standards. As a result, the agreement faced intense opposition from many labor and civil society organizations in the U.S. Disregarding such critics, the Bush administration lobbied extensively for CAFTA passage. In the House of Representatives the vote was held open longer than permitted until it finally passed in July, 2005. If Wilson had opposed CAFTA the initiative would have stalled —- the free trade agreement passed by only a single vote.
A pernicious agreement, CAFTA has displaced the rural poor in Central America and led to migration to the United States. A recent report by the Stop CAFTA coalition comprised of progressive U.S. organizations in solidarity with Central America points out that inequality and poverty have worsened under CAFTA and thousands upon thousands of workers are forced to migrate to Mexico and the United States because farming is no longer profitable. In Central America, farmers are frequently unable to access the international market in large part owing to weak infrastructure and their inability to compete with large corporate farms which have access to the capital necessary to succeed in the new CAFTA economy.
Take for example the case of El Salvador where rural unemployment increased after CAFTA came into effect and emigration increased to the United States. In the long term, CAFTA stands to undermine poor rice, corn, and dairy producers. That’s because under the new regime, the U.S. may sell these staples to El Salvador in large quantities. In Nicaragua meanwhile things are not much better: small farmers who have been unable to compete with agribusiness have been forced out of the market and people are obliged to migrate out of economic necessity.
All of this is of apparently little consequence to Joe Wilson — even as he supports free trade he takes strong anti-immigrant positions on Capitol Hill. Wilson for example supported the Secure Fence Act, a bill which authorized the construction of an additional 700 miles of double-layered fencing between the U.S and Mexico while granting the Secretary of Homeland Security authority to take necessary steps to stop unlawful entry of immigrants into the U.S.
Wilson also voted for one particularly mean-spirited bill, the Undocumented Immigrant Emergency Medical Assistance Act, which would have prohibited federal reimbursement of funds to hospitals providing emergency services to undocumented immigrants unless the hospital provided the Secretary of Homeland Security with citizenship and employment records. The measure, which was co-sponsored by far right Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, fortunately went down to defeat in the House.
To pseudo-populists such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs, Joe Wilson is a hero for adopting anti-immigrant positions. Yet Dobbs and his audience haven’t asked themselves the crucial question of why Latinos immigrate to the U.S. in the first place, nor have they examined the role of corporate free trade in Central America. No, that would require some more subtle thinking and analysis — a quality sorely lacking within today’s right wing fringe.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his blog at http://senorchichero.blogspot.com/