How Broccoli Might Stem Mexican Migration

Study predicts mass exodus of corn farmers unless they upgrade

If the United States is serious about slowing immigration from Mexico, it might consider encouraging Mexican corn farmers to switch to broccoli.

That's one conclusion to be drawn from a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that predicts more than 6 million rural Mexicans will head for Mexican cities - or the US - over the next decade.

The corn-to-broccoli scenario arises from predictions that the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a more open market will doom many Mexican corn producers, forcing them off the land as more cheaply produced corn arrives from the US. But if corn were replaced with labor-intensive crops - such as broccoli - the rural exodus might be braked.

The report, part of a series of studies on labor migration around the world, argues for a long-term approach to the migration pressures the US will face from its southern border as Mexico integrates into the global economy.

"Once NAFTA passed, everybody thought it would immediately reduce migration from Mexico, but in fact the opposite should be true," says Phillip Martin, the author of the report and an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis.

Referring to what he calls a "migration hump," Mr. Martin says the same phenomenon can be expected between Mexico and the US that occurred elsewhere as poorer countries "caught up" with their wealthier neighbors. "The migration hump is nothing extraordinary. It's what happened when southern Europe caught up with northern Europe," he says. "It's going to happen [here], and it needs to be planned for."

The report comes out as US-Mexico news was dominated by two announcements that at least in part addressed the migration issue.

Last Tuesday, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service announced plans to spend an additional $400 million of a record $3.1-billion budget to deter illegal immigration along the Southwest border. "Our first priority remains to secure the border," said INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, laying out plans to hire 1,000 additional border patrol agents and 350 new border inspectors.

On Thursday, Mexico paid back the last $3.5 billion of an emergency loan President Clinton authorized in February 1995 in response to Mexico's financial crisis. The loans, which at their height reached $12.5 billion, will be replaced by long-term private sector borrowing.

One of the administration's arguments in favor of the financial rescue was that an economic collapse in Mexico would likely send additional thousands of jobless Mexicans across the border. The loan was an effective response to potential migration pressures, Martin says.

"The most important thing [the US has] done lately is the loan guarantees," he says, while discounting the effectiveness of increases in border enforcement. He says heightened surveillance "has doubled [migrant] smuggling costs and pushed more migrants to use smugglers, but it has not deterred migration."

The US is also pursuing other policies that work against its efforts to cut Mexican migration, both US and Mexican analysts note. The US continues to protect California avocado growers from Mexican competition and last year confronted Mexico over tomato imports in response to complaints from Florida tomato growers. But both are labor-intensive crops that, if allowed to flourish in Mexico as a result of access to the US market, could help keep Mexican workers at home.

"This is the kind of contradiction in US policy that Mexico has always faced," says Jorge Satibaez, a migration expert at Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

Mexico's rural exodus will continue with or without NAFTA, says migration expert Maria Eugenia Anguiano. What will determine how many displaced agricultural workers head for Mexican cities and the US will be the success of local economic development programs. She notes that Guanajuato state has embarked on a program designed to reorient workers to new jobs. "But it's too early to say whether or not this will be a success."

For his part, Martin has doubts. He sees economic development in Mexico's more-prosperous northern states having some short-term impact against migration pressures, but says that the number of people leaving rural Mexico has accelerated since the economic crisis.

And even if Mexico develops an export-led economy that allows it to grow closer to US income levels, Martin says it's unlikely to reach the poor southern states. There's an open question over whether the job growth that attracts rural Mexicans "will be in Mexico City or the US, but it won't be down south."

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