Who’s Stealing Our Jobs?

NAFTA and xenophobia

By Tom McKenna

Illustrator: David Bacon

In Tijuana, Mexico, women workers protest sexual harassment at the maquiladora (U.S. owned factory) where they work. After NAFTA, maquiladora production skyrocketed.
Photo by David Bacon

I believe it is Sophia who first raises the question. She asks it during a time when students are supposed to be writing. Sophia doesn’t like to write. I consider dismissing her remark as resistance to the task at hand.

But I choose to honor Sophia’s question. I ask her to repeat it.

“I said,” says Sophia, “why do people say that Mexicans are stealing Americans’ jobs?”

Before I can respond, Marcus, an African American student, mutters, “Glad somebody finally said it.”

“See what I mean, McKenna, what’s up with that?”

“That’s right,” says Marcus. “They’re getting all the things we’re supposed to get and feel like they’re better than us.”

“That’s BS. I’m so tired of hearing people say this. Show me one of those jobs, please, I need one. I’m the only one in my family who has legal papers, and it makes it really hard for us to survive. You wouldn’t believe the jobs my dad has had to do and the way he’s been treated.”

I decide that it’s time to push the planned curriculum aside and address the very real problem of racism that besieges my students; time to change a dynamic that ends up setting students from different backgrounds against each other rather than unifying them in the face of a common problem.

I spend my time after school figuring out how to do this: How do I get to the heart of the anti-Mexican racism contained in the oft-repeated notions about why my Black students, their families, and their communities can’t find good jobs?

I teach at a predominantly Latina/o and African American alternative high school in the heart of what was once Portland’s Black community, now barely recognizable as such given the impact of gentrification. The students have either dropped out or been excluded from traditional schools. They know “something ain’t right,” but they lack the language to name it, framework to understand it, and critical historical knowledge.

I decide to engage my students in a study of NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement. I want students to recognize how NAFTA benefited elites in the three member countries—Mexico, the United States, and Canada—but hurt workers and farmers. Since it took effect in 1994, NAFTA has pitted people against each other and heightened racial tensions.

Case in Point: The State of Arizona

I start by setting context: Portland isn’t the only place in the United States with anti-Mexican sentiment. We watch the first 16 minutes of the documentary The State of Arizona. The film explores the impact of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are not in the U.S. legally. This bill, signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010 and created by the same government officials who forced the closure of Tucson’s renowned Mexican American Studies program, has resulted in racial profiling of Latina/os and Asian Americans throughout the state. I distribute a handout to accompany the video.

Following names of key players in the documentary are two sections for simple responses to what the students are about to view. The first section is titled “I see. . .” The second section is titled “I hear. . .”

“Act as reporters; it’s simple, it’s easy, and it beats falling asleep,” I tell the students. “Just complete the sentences. For instance, I might write down things like ‘I see people marching’; ‘I see police harassing anyone who looks Mexican’; ‘I see the hurt Arizona’s actions cause’; ‘I hear a woman argue that white people own Arizona’; ‘I hear her say ‘we took it from you, it’s ours.'”

I start the video. Students begin to write what they see and hear. We see Brewer shrug her shoulders in a “so what” pose at the notion of locking up thousands of people. We hear Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio say “Don’t come here.” We see Mexican Americans organizing resistance. We see news reports fanning fears of drug-related violence and cartels, including a TV reporter who speculates that the perpetrator of an unsolved murder “could be an illegal immigrant.” We learn about SB 1070 and other anti-immigrant legislation. We see the humanity of those targeted in Arizona. We see white faces turning red with hatred while spitting vitriol about Mexicans in the United States.

Students transfer what they see and hear onto chart paper on the walls. We begin to create a collective word bank. Questions arise in a process I call “contagious inquiry”: One student gives voice to something they don’t get, they express and validate what others wonder. That opens a door to additional questions, each one making possible one more. We start a third chart paper repository for those questions. Students want to know why people are getting so ugly in Arizona. How did it get like this? How can white people in Arizona get away with enacting racist laws? Can you really get deported for having your family over for dinner if they are undocumented? I remind them of our previous day’s emotional discussion about alleged job theft and add a question to the chart paper: Do we see any of the same themes we discussed in class in Arizona? Emoni offers a nugget of wisdom shortly before the bell: “Folks get distracted by one thing when something else is going on, when somebody is getting over and, in the process, innocent people get hurt. It’s happening everywhere.”

Our next day begins with a bit more writing. “Yesterday we collected what you saw and heard from the movie about Arizona.” I point to their words on the classroom wall, “Now, please write about what you think and feel. Capture your reactions to what you witnessed—both from the movie and from the work we did following the movie.”

A few groans, some sighs, a couple of glances at the clock to see how much time is left in class even though it just started; still, for the most part, students write.

After 20 minutes of writing, we share our results:
“I think Arizona is messed up.” “The media makes the situation worse.”
“I’m glad I’m not Mexican in Arizona; being Black is tough enough.”
“I think a lot of people are afraid.”

I ask the class, “What do you think has caused the racism we see in Arizona to reach the level it has?”

Emoni says, “They seem afraid. The white people act like they’re under attack.”

“What do you think causes fear, whether it be our own fears or the fears we saw in the movie about Arizona?”

Recently returned from a year with his family in Mexico, Luis remarks that people’s fears seem to be connected to a feeling of powerlessness, of being out of control in the face of unseen forces. “It’s what many people in Arizona probably feel. There are changes happening in everyone’s life and they don’t understand why. It’s what many of us feel—things happen to us.”

Students agree with Luis. Regardless of background, a common experience emerges among the students defined by a collective feeling of powerlessness. Someone else has power. They don’t. I decide to explore the issue of power a bit more. Awaiting students at the beginning of our next class is a simple organizer. Across the top of the page I’ve typed the word Power. Below, a sentence asks students: “In your own words, write a definition of the word power.”

Below the space for their definition space are two columns. The column on the left reads “Times I’ve felt powerful”; the column on the right reads “Times I’ve felt powerless.” I ask students to brainstorm a list of personal experiences for each column.

We share our writing. I hope that our sharing will expose the common threads that run through what too often seems like a personal and isolating experience. Most students say they think power is related to control and involves people being able to get what they want. The times many feel most powerful is when they have “backup”—they’re with family or friends, they’re a member of a group or team, they have some say in outcomes.

Powerlessness is connected to being caught alone; being poor; being in court, jail, or school; not being able to find a job; getting evicted; having no say; feeling bad about themselves.

“Now,” I say, “imagine this: Someone is looking for a job and can’t find one. How might they feel about the person who has the job they want? Or that same person is trying to get subsidized housing and can’t. How might they feel about people who find a place to live and can afford to pay the rent? Are the times when you feel powerless connected to the times you might say something like ‘that group is getting all the jobs or apartments that we should be getting?'”

I look at Marcus, hoping for a comment, but the bell rings. One thing all students share, regardless of background, is the desire to get to lunch on time.

The North American Free Trade Agreement

The next day, I write NAFTA on the front whiteboard. “Today we’re going to learn what these letters mean,” I announce to the class. “We’re going to analyze a speech about the North American Free Trade Agreement made by President Bill Clinton in 1993, shortly after he became president. It will help us understand more about the situation we witnessed in Arizona, more about the anti-immigrant sentiment that is growing nationwide, more about what we fear in our own lives, and perhaps more about power.”

First we build some background knowledge: What is “free trade?” What kinds of trade might be part of such an agreement? I explain that Clinton championed NAFTA when he was president and then hand out copies of a speech in which he touts the benefits of the agreement. I ask students to partner up to read it. Along with copies of the speech (from The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration), I distribute pieces of chart paper that are about six inches larger than the perimeter of the 8 x 11 copy of the president’s speech. Students tape the handout in the middle of the chart paper so it frames the printed words, leaving wide margins all around—plenty of room for annotated comments and references.

We read the first part of the speech together to identify Clinton’s first claim. Students underline text where the president says: “NAFTA. Free trade will make us all prosperous.” They draw a line from the quote to the surrounding chart paper and write “Claim #1: NAFTA will make everyone in the United States, Canada, and Mexico rich.” Then I ask the pairs to finish reading the speech, looking for more claims and annotating them.

My friend and colleague Linda Christensen shared this activity with me in a workshop. She’s right: Students get absorbed in their work. They ask for colored pens to highlight their findings and decorate their annotations. Most everyone finishes and manages to mine six to eight claims out of the president’s words: No U.S. jobs will cross the border in search of cheaper wages; immigration to the United States from Mexico will not increase; millions of new jobs will be created in both Mexico and the United States.

Students tape their annotated speeches on the walls and leave for lunch.

“Is This Really Happening?”

Another activity from The Line Between Us, “The Mexico-United States Free Trade Conference,” will help us break down this thing called NAFTA.

I distribute a handout that lays out five NAFTA-related issues, and asks students if they approve or disapprove of each one from the point of view of an appointed role. I simplify the activity’s seven roles to three: wealthy U.S. corporations, poor Mexican farmers, and U.S. factory workers. I assign small groups of students to each role. We read the issues aloud and consider them one by one: Which groups would benefit from the loss of tariffs on goods—like basic food products—traded between the United States and Mexico? Which groups would be hurt? Who would support or be opposed to changing the parts of the Mexican constitution that provide for common land ownership and prohibit land ownership by non-Mexicans? Who would support or oppose laws giving corporations the right to sue a government that threatens its profits? Who would support or oppose corporations moving from one country to another in search of cheap labor? Should people be able to enjoy the same freedom of movement across borders that money and goods enjoy? It’s a lot to digest, so we take our time.

For example, I raise the issue of tariffs on goods entering Mexico from the United States: “Say you’re a small farmer in Mexico and you produce corn. Would you want a tax on any corn coming into Mexico from the United States?”

“Well, it depends,” says Luis. “A tax on corn coming from the United States would make it more expensive. That’s what a tariff does. So that would mean Mexican people would pay more for corn, right?”

“Right,” I say. “What if you’re a Mexican farmer whose livelihood depends on selling the corn your grow? Would you want to be undersold by U.S. corn coming into your country? And what if the U.S. companies can sell their corn for less than it costs you to grow yours because they get subsidized by the U.S. government?

“We’d be shit out of luck.”

“So how would Mexican farmers who grow and sell corn feel about their government lifting the tariff off corn that a corporation like Wal-Mart wants to sell in Mexico?”

Luis asks what many are wondering: “Wait, is this really happening? Is this what NAFTA is all about?”

When I tell the class, yes, that NAFTA took effect in 1994 and that the issues we’re discussing, like lifting tariffs off U.S. imports to Mexico, are key parts of the agreement, they’re incredulous.

Questions from the role-play suddenly become real: How is it that the United States can change the Mexican constitution to take away common land? How can a corporation have more power than a government or a community, especially if that corporation is doing something that hurts people who are already poor? How can money and U.S. citizens move freely across borders but Mexican people can’t? How can this be?

I have a number of NAFTA-related articles in file folders at the back of the classroom. I provide a simple annotation sheet to guide student reading. Students read at least three articles, annotate them, and then share what they learned so we build a collective understanding of NAFTA’s impact on jobs, workers, the environment, wages, immigration, and unions.

The one piece that we all read is NAFTA’s Broken Promises 1994-2013: Outcomes of the North American Free Trade Agreement (see Resources). Given its length, I assign parts of the article to pairs of students and have them jigsaw their findings. The first pair of students focuses on NAFTA’s impact on job creation/job loss in the United States and Mexico; pair No. 2, wage gain/loss and inequality in both countries; pair No. 3, NAFTA’s impact on family farms; pair No. 4, corporate vs. government power and trade; pair No. 5, Mexican migration and immigration; and pair No. 6, NAFTA’s impact on social conditions in various communities in the United States and in Mexico.

Students add their findings to the chart paper surrounding the Clinton speech. When our research concludes, students lay out their annotated Clinton speeches, now filled with researched conclusions, on desks around my cramped classroom. The class engages in a gallery walk of sorts. Students visit each other’s work and read what their classmates uncovered. They return to their seats and add what they’ve learned from their classmates’ work to their own chart paper as we discuss their individual and collective discoveries.

Rage reigns. Sophia starts the conversation. “More than 2 million Mexican agricultural workers lost their jobs. We hear all this stuff about Mexicans taking jobs but Mexican workers got fucked.”

Gabriella jumps in. “Look, right here”—she turns to read information from an exposŽ in the New Republic: “1.1 million small farmers—and 1.4 million other Mexicans dependent upon the farm sector—were driven out of work between 1993 and 2005 . . . swelling the ranks of the 12 million illegal immigrants living incognito and competing for low-wage jobs in the United States.”

Emoni patiently waits for her turn. “We all got fucked. Not just the Mexicans. All kinds of people lost jobs. Look at this statistic, hundreds of thousands of American manufacturing jobs left the U.S.”

Marcus ends a weeklong silence and puts many classmates’ thoughts into words: “Wait, I’m confused. President Clinton said NAFTA was going to be a great thing, that everyone would get rich. From what we learned today, it doesn’t look so great for people like us.”

“Who is ‘us,’ Marcus?”

“All of us, people on both sides of the border.”

More statistics roll out and create a picture of job and wage loss, forced migration, cuts to local services, unemployment, and a growing divide between a very small percentage of wealthy people and a very large percentage of people who struggle to get by.

Luis sums it up: “Mexicans didn’t steal American jobs. NAFTA did. And the crazy part is we end up blaming each other instead.”

“Clinton was one lying motherfucka’, boy.”

A stunned silence settles over the class.

We catch our breath to let the results of our work settle in.

I generate a list of questions derived from their chart paper. It’s what greets students on the front board when they enter class the following day:

  • How is Sophia’s family’s predicament connected to what we’ve learned?
  • Is there any connection between the housing insecurity so many feel and global forces set in motion by NAFTA?
  • Is there any connection between Marcus’ original animosity toward Mexicans and NAFTA-caused unemployment?
  • Is there any connection between the predicaments we all face in an increasingly unequal society?

We spend the remaining months of the school year breaking down and hammering away at those questions and trying to create a new, inclusive understanding of who “us” is. Small pieces of a growing collective understanding happen every day.

Students learn that their individual experience is shaped by larger issues of economic and political injustice, expressed initially by Luis when he concludes that NAFTA and the corporate interests it represents are “the real job thieves in our lives,” that blaming Mexican people for job loss in the United States is akin to blaming disappearing glaciers for global warming.

At the end of our NAFTA-focused study, Sophia, who usually tries to sneak out of class early, waits until her classmates leave and lingers by the door. “Later, McKenna.”

“Later, Sophia. By the way, thanks for your question.”

“What question?”

“Your question about why people accuse Mexicans of stealing U.S. jobs.”

“Oh, yeah . . . whatever.” And then she disappears into the river of students clogging the too-small hallways, kissing off her afternoon classes to make the bus that will get her to her fast-food job on time.


Tom McKenna taught high school social studies in Portland Oregon for 40 years. He is the author of numerous Rethinking Schools articles including “Pain and Poetry: Facing Our Fears” summer 2010.