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In a Wednesday press conference at Liberty University, a day after the GOP presidential candidates’ most recent debate, co-frontrunner Ben Carson aired his views on one of the race’s most contested topics: immigration. The former surgeon echoed Donald Trump on the magical powers of a heavily policed border fence and pushed back against his rival on the desirability of purging 11 million undocumented people, expressing concern for the plight of “farmers with multi-thousand acre farms” and hotel owners, who, he fretted, would have trouble finding workers to harvest crops and clean rooms.
Then he dropped a whopper. The answer to stemming the (alleged) tide of undocumented workers coming from the south is easy, he suggested: US companies simply need to set up shop in Central and South America and teach them how to farm. His model, he said, is Cameroon, where US agribusiness firms are “helping to develop millions of acres and incredibly fertile land, growing record crops, and getting big profits,” which, he added, “is great for them; I like business.”
These companies are doing well by doing good, he argued, “building the infrastructure of a nation, creating jobs there, and teaching them the ag business so they carry on themselves, while at the same time creating friends for the United States.” And if US firms repeat this feat south of the US border, “people won’t feel the necessity to come here.”
Whoa. First, Cameroon makes an odd model for foreign-led agriculture development. The nation has seen overall food production rise and malnutrition rates drop, but that’s the work of domestic smallholder farmers growing for the local market, not multinationals. Foreign firms have played a large role in converting forest into large palm oil plantations, but those efforts have generated at least as much controversy as “friends for the United States.” The Belgian-owned company Socapalm is locked in a “bitter land rights struggle” with villagers over expansion plans, The Guardian reports. And earlier this month, the government sentenced Cameroon environmental activist and NGO leader Nasako Besing to three years in prison for his role in opposing a hotly contested palm expansion/deforestation project by US firm Herakles Farm.
Then there’s the vexed history of US interventions in Mexican agriculture. The Green Revolution—the effort, funded by US foundations, to bring industrial-style agriculture to the global south—started in Mexico in the 1940s. As the historian Nick Cullather shows in his fantastic 2010 book The Hungry World (which I reviewed here), the Green Revolution did transform agriculture in Mexico’s north. The result: “narrowing of domestic agriculture’s genetic base, supplanting indigenous, sustainable practices; displacing small and communal farming with commercial agribusiness; and pushing millions of peasants into urban slums or across the border.”
Thus Mexico’s Green Revolution experience triggered what 1950s US policymakers would call the “wetback problem”—1.5 million migrants crossing the border each year in search of gainful work, Cullather shows. And that led directly to President Eisenhower’s infamous Operation Wetback, the very round-’em-up-and-purge-them scheme that Carson’s opponent Trump repeatedly trumpeted (though not by name) in Tuesday’s debate.
Of course, the last big wave of Mexican migration was also directly linked to US agribusiness. Implemented in 1994, NAFTA removed trade barriers and inspired Mexican policymakers to withdraw support for Mexican farmers. The result was a flood of subsidized US corn going south, a plunge in corn prices, and a tide of displaced Mexican smallholders heading north, as the Mexican analyst Ana de Ita and others have shown. US firms like Archer Daniels Midland profited handsomely.
In more recent years, though, immigration from Mexico has slowed dramatically, brought down by a variety of factors, from better corn prices in Mexico to less pull from the sluggish US economy. There’s strong evidence that net Mexico-to-US migration (the number of new arrivals minus the number who leave) is at or near zero. You won’t hear Carson or Trump talk about that, or the fact that current undocumented immigrants pay billions in annual taxes, both federal and state/local, in exchange for low-wage labor on farms, in restaurants, etc. On the immigration issue, Carson and his main rival to the GOP presidential throne are spewing noxious fumes about nothing in particular.