Commentary: NAFTA's bloodshed
Written by Stan Duncan
October - November 2006
November 1, 2006

Is 'cheap coffee' worth the welfare of Mexican families?

When I hear Congress debating putting up walls or sending troops to our southern borders to keep out immigrants, I think of two young people I heard about when I was in Chiapas, Mexico, a couple of months ago.

I never actually met them, but I knew their families. They were kids actually, named Jasmine Diaz and Daniel Hernandez. They were 18-years-old and were engaged to be married. Their parents were wonderful, hard-working people, and their families had been growing corn, beans and coffee in that region for over 100 years.

However, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the U.S. began exporting cheap subsidized corn to Mexico, which undercut the price of their local crop. It destroyed corn production for thousands of people.

At the same time, because of global over-production and the West's demand for cheap coffee, the growers' share of income has dropped to a 30-year low. According to the World Bank, the collapse of coffee has caused over 600,000 innocent people to lose their farms, their homes, their livelihoods.

Some of those were from Jasmine's family. Their living conditions had gotten so bad that one day last summer they finally decided they had to do something. Their options weren't good. They could join the rebels, they could migrate to the sweat shops, they could grow cocaine, or they could put together a delegation to make that dangerous and terrifying journey north into the United States to find work.

Typically, if they got in, they'd all rent a room together, take turns sleeping and working, eat as little as possible, and then send money back home. One day's work - picking vegetables in Southern California, at below minimum wage - could feed a family of six in Chiapas for a week.

So, they got six volunteers, all good workers, all young men, who would go north and try to get in. However, one problem was that Daniel was one of those going and he and Jasmine had just gotten engaged and they couldn't stand being apart from each other.

Maybe they both could find jobs; maybe they could afford a place together. Maybe they could finally get married - who knows? So the family agreed and they added Jasmine to the group, and then they all left.

They walked down their high remote mountain and made their way on foot for three weeks up the coast, along the spine of the westward side of the Sierra Madre mountains until, exhausted and broke, and they stopped at the town of Altar, about 60 miles south of the border, where they hired Bolivar Cerbando Morales-Galvez to be their "coyote."

"Coyotes" are unsavory, unscrupulous people who deal in bodies. For a fee they will smuggle people like Jasmine and Daniel and their family across the border into the new world.

There are actually several routes into the U.S. from Altar. The most popular is through the town of Sasabe, because there's less sand and more shade, and the journey is not as brutal. Another one is shorter, but straight up through the Sonora Desert. Jasmine and her family didn't have the $1,200 to $1,500 their coyote usually charges, so he took what they had, and then led them through the Sonora.

But it was a mistake. They were too weak, the journey had been too long, and the heat was too evil.

After three days they couldn't go any further. They begged their coyote to call ahead on his satellite mobile phone for help, but he wouldn't do it.

Finally about 100 miles southwest of Tucson, Ariz., on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, most of them collapsed. They couldn't make it, so the coyote abandoned them.

Three of Jasmine's uncles, who were still strong enough, went on ahead and searched for help. They turned themselves in to some border guards in Gila's Bend, and then led the guards back to their friends.

When they arrived they found all of them in critical condition, dying from dehydration. Two of them recovered quickly. Two more were in intensive care for a while. But young Jasmine died.

I don't know how to solve the complex and difficult story of immigration in America. I can't begin to work through all of the legal and historical issues that brought us to where we are today.

But what I do know is that Jasmine Dias and Daniel Hernandez are not our enemies. They didn't come here to hurt us, or take our jobs, or soak up our tax dollars.

They came here because they were hungry, because they were desperate, and because they loved each other.

And I know that little Jasmine died for our sins.

She died so that we could continue to worship a market system that destroys families and crushes human beings far away so that we can live well here at home - a system that forces down prices so that we can drink cheap coffee, a system that forces up immigration so that our farmers can have cheap labor.

Whatever sentence a judge might have given to that "coyote" who abandoned them in the Sonora desert, at the end of the day, you and I and all of our families are co-conspirators in the crime.

The Rev. Stan Duncan is pastor of Abingdon UCC in Massachusetts.

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