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Commentary: Corn Subsidies at Root of U.S.-Mexico Immigration Problems

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Since the North American Free Trade Agreement began to be implemented in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent and Mexican corn growers complain that they have little hope of competing in this protected market. In this week’s Acton Commentary (published Feb. 29) Anthony Bradley writes that, “U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.” The full text of his essay follows. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

Corn Subsidies at Root of U.S.-Mexico Immigration Problems

by Anthony B. Bradley

America’s immigration debate will never be adequately addressed until we think clearly about the economic incentives that encourage Mexican citizens to risk their lives to cross the border. In fact, if we care about human dignity we must think comprehensively about the conditions for human flourishing so that the effective policies promote the common good. Sadly, U.S. government farm subsidies create the conditions for the oppression and poor health care of Mexican migrant workers in ways that make those subsidies nothing less than immoral.

Dr. Seth M. Holmes, a professor of Health and Social Behavior at the University of California — Berkeley, identified the source of the problem in his watershed 2006 paper, “An Ethnographic Study of the Social Context of Migrant Health in the United States.” In the study we learn that 95 percent of agricultural workers in the United States were born in Mexico and 52 percent are undocumented. Most researchers agree that inequalities in the global market make up the primary driving force of labor migration patterns. Mexico’s current minimum wage is US$4.60 per day. In contrast, the US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, while it is $7.65 in Arizona, $8 in California, $7.50 in New Mexico, and $7.25 in Texas.

The 2003 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) deregulated all agricultural trade, except for corn and dairy products. The Mexican government complains that since NAFTA’s initial implementation in 1994, the United States has raised farm subsidies by 300 percent. As a result, Mexican corn farmers, who comprise the majority of the country’s agricultural sector, experienced drastic declines in the domestic price of their product. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States began to experience an influx of Mexicans looking for employment in the latter half of the 1990s. Mexican farmers are now rightly protesting because they cannot compete against prices that are artificially deflated for the sake of protecting Americans from necessary market corrections.

Holmes explains that migrant and seasonal farm workers suffer the poorest health status within the agriculture industry. For example, migrant workers have increased rates of many chronic conditions, such as HIV infection, malnutrition, anemia, hypertension, diabetes, anxiety, sterility, blood disorders, and abnormalities in liver and kidney function. This population has an increased incidence of acute sicknesses such as urinary tract and kidney infections, lung infections, heat stroke, anthrax, encephalitis, rabies, and tetanus. Tuberculosis prevalence is six times greater in this population than in the general United States population. Finally, Holmes reports, children of migrant farm workers show high rates of malnutrition, vision problems, dental problems, anemia, and excess blood lead levels.

Economically speaking, Mexico’s central bank recently announced that the $22.7 billion in remittances that Mexican migrant workers sent home from the United States in 2011 increased by 6.86 percent over the previous year.  Remittances are Mexico’s second-largest source of foreign income following oil exports. Nearly all of that the money comes from the United States, with a Mexican citizen population of 12 million.

Can you imagine what would happen if the United States had no farm subsidies, Mexican farms were flourishing, and $22.7 billion was generated within Mexico’s economy to catalyze more wealth creating opportunities? We can only dream at present, but one thing is for certain: Mexican migrant workers would be far better off. As such, through federal corn farm subsidies, America’s government is morally culpable for the oppression, dehumanization, and poor health of Mexican migrant workers.

Mexican migrant workers are sick and dying because politicians create perverse and immoral incentives by interfering with the market. Ignoring the dignity of Mexican workers and the common good, they instead pander to a powerful special interest group, the corn lobby. What Mexico needs from U.S. political leaders is the fortitude to let market mechanisms foster human flourishing in Mexico so that families do not have to the suffer the hazards of migrancy. In sum, it would be better for both countries if the Mexican economy were not sabotaged by the politics of protectionism.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • I’d prefer to say that the corn subsidies are illustrative of the overall set of problems between Mexico and the United States which contribute to existing migration patterns. 
    That American corn farmers are a special interest with concentrated voice in the US Government has been true for a long, long time now.  Interestingly, it may be true that their voice has become stronger as their numbers have become fewer, and thus more concentrated and easier to collude.  (There’s got to be a Public Choice paper on that somewhere…)
    In the meantime, Mexican industrialists have found ways to employ NAFTA as a mechanism for protecting cartels, as well.  The border at Laredo, TX is dominated by a Mexican import trucking cartel which deliberately slows the movement of US goods into Mexico in order to capture rents (see a paper by Londono-Kent).  Warehouses stateside are owned by the Mexican cartel and generate revenues for their owners.  Delays only increase these revenues.  Crossing into Mexico is an order of magnitude slower than crossing into Canada despite much tighter infrastructure constraints at the Canadian border.
    How should we procede to handle the corn subsidies?
    If we simply end the subsidies, many farmers who are fully capitalized into these rents will lose their life savings.
    A government buyout, such as what happened with tobacco a few years ago (though not precisely analogous) would force taxpayers to shoulder the burden, and we didn’t do anything wrong.
    Waiting for market changes or exogenous shocks to reduce the harm seems to turn a blind eye toward injustice.
    Might I suggest, radically, that believers who are concerned for the Mexican farmers voluntarily offer to buyout the subsidies sacrificially and then ask the government to cancel them?
    Because we ought to put our money where our mouth is, and we ought not to advocate the resolution of an injustice through the institution of another injustice (though it be smaller).
    Inasmuch as this type of action generates a moral hazard going forward we will have to trust that the demonstration of sacrifice may have a transformative effect on other parties involved.  Further, inasmuch as this sort of action fails to accomplish justice completely we will have to remember that God is sovereign over the suffering of His innocents.
    There is no perfect solution to this sort of problem, as Gordon Tullock demonstrated in his work on Transitional Gains Traps.  There is only the sacrificial solution which Jesus demonstrated on the cross.