Years ago, I moved to Eastern Tennessee to work at the Highlander Research and Education Center. Highlander was founded as the Highlander Folk School, but reincorporated under its current name after its charter was revoked by the State of Tennessee in 1962 in an effort to dislodge the school from its pivotal position in the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Highlander is famous for hosting students like Rosa Parks, Dr. King, John Lewis, and Ella Baker. But I’ve always felt that its greatest accomplishment was organizing the Citizenship Schools. Under the leadership of Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, the Citizenship Schools used Sears catalogs in literacy classes aimed at turning “sharecroppers into voters.” Those schools accomplished this by helping poor blacks, living out the legacy of a history of laws and racial terrorism aimed at keeping black people from reading, pass discriminatory literacy tests required for voting. The Schools are credited with helping to build the Civil Rights Movement by lifting hundreds into leadership in the fight to win voting rights. As a former literacy teacher, I was inspired by this history.
Through Highlander, I came to know the South, or at least to know it as well as I could hope to in the two years it took me to realize I wasn’t cut out for life in rural Appalachia. From that perch, I saw that the South, even the small and mid-sized industrial towns of Eastern Tennessee, was in the throes of rapid demographic change mostly driven by a powerful immigrant stream from Mexico.
Migrants work in factories and on farms in conditions that will lead to injury, cancer, emphysema, even blindness for many. They work for next to nothing and without hope of advancement, but tolerate these conditions because their families in Mexico live on the difference in value of the peso and the dollar in communities where there are few if any jobs.
Of the various industries, I found that meat packing best exemplifies the racial dynamics of the globalizing South. In the plants, the fastest growing group of manual laborers are Mexican, many of whom work on the cutting room floor, breaking down chickens and sides of pork on a super speedy assembly line sure to cost some digits if not limbs. In the plants, African Americans are being displaced by migrants whose immigration status makes them less likely to demand better wages and conditions. The profit in this system flows upward to whites who hold virtually every high level position from plant manager to CEO, even while racial resentment spreads horizontally among workers.
About a decade after leaving Highlander I moved to Mexico. I lived in a rural town then just four years away from telephone service, and five or six years away from the first cars, purchases made by locals after selling land to developers profiting from the new wave of U.S. retirees.
There were two butchers in the pueblo. Both sold local beef and chicken and, oddly enough, foreign pork.
The pork was from giant U.S. meat producers like Smithfield. I wondered why a community with a tradition of raising local pigs for slaughter would sell U.S. pork, but eventually put it out of my mind. After all, in a town flooded by U.S. retirees, grocers sold lots of stuff tailored to the tastes of affluent gringos, usually alongside but occasionally at the expense of carrying local staples.
But then a reader sent me this article. It tells the story of one migrant who came to the U.S. to work as a meat packer for Smithfield after being driven out of a failing family meat producing business in Mexico that was collapsing under the pressure of competition with companies like Smithfield who were able to flood the Mexican market with cheap U.S. pork because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Reading the article reminded me of the contradictions between our trade policies and our immigration policies. NAFTA allows U.S. companies to flood the Mexican market with cheap, often subsidized, agricultural products including corn, the staple of the Mexican diet, driving Mexican farmers out of business. With no way to make a living, some migrate to the U.S., following Mexican capital as it flows north. In the U.S., they often find themselves employed by the same companies whose incursions into the Mexican market drove them to migrate to begin with.
The irony of this should not be lost on us as Congress contemplates immigration reform. We ought to ask, is the best border enforcement ending unfair trade policies? And, more pointedly, should our immigration and trade policies combine to allow companies like Smithfield to profit at both ends of injustice? Or, is that why these policies were created in the first place?