Sunday, March 25, 2007

A Trip to Tijuana's "Maquiladoras"

White crosses placed on the Mexican side of the border. Each cross bears the name of one immigrant who died trying to cross the border.

By Guest Blogger Jameel Besada

I recently took a trip down to Tijuana, Mexico to examine the effects of the sweatshops or “maquiladoras” and the living conditions they indirectly create.

My first stop was Otay Industrial Park, a non functioning maquiladora perched upon a hill overlooking a small village. It was here an American entrepreneur once set up a maquiladora for the purposes of disposing the contents of car and marine batteries. These batteries, once filled with toxins such as lead, were then emptied. However, to secure a bigger profit, the American businessman buried the lead in the ground, instead of disposing of it properly, thus allowing it to seep into the soil. During heavy rains, the runoff is saturated with lead as it streams down the hill and into the village below, causing multiple health risks for its inhabitants. The Mexican government tried suing the American businessman, but he eventually fled the country and is now living comfortably in San Diego.

Shanty town in Tijuana: the buildings are made of wood, meant for temporary residence. Also, the town is bisected by this very polluted river which children are forced to play around.

My next stop was visiting a maquiladora workers’ neighborhood. This shanty town is comprised of dozens of 12x8 wooden structures along with a polluted stream running through the middle of the town. Children play in and around the neighborhood without the slightest knowledge that there are hundreds of pollutants in the water. It is also here where the workers live during their temporary employment in the maquiladoras. Due to the nature of these buildings, the workers are unable to secure potable water, electricity, and proper sewage disposal.

This unfortunately is just one of hundreds of scenarios equally as bad or worse. Nonetheless, cases such as these are created by poor American policy and a lack of intervention by the Mexican government.

The implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) on October 1st, 1994 in Mexico, Canada, and the United States was supposed to modernize Mexico by creating a plethora of jobs in the industrial sector. As a result, NAFTA has had only a positive effect for American big business and an almost devastating effect for Mexico and its people.
Free trade along the three North American countries has allowed US businesses to move to Mexico creating sweatshops or “maquiladoras”, where minimum wage laws are nonexistent and worker safety is often overlooked. Therefore, American businesses can overwork and underpay hundreds of Mexican employees, thus causing their profit margins to increase drastically while the laborers are subject to poor working conditions.

Furthermore, NAFTA has allowed the market saturation of cheap American corn into the Mexican agricultural sector, turning thousands of independent Mexican maize farmers into unemployed, impoverished citizens. Forcefully having to choose between working in a maquiladora or facing starvation, many Mexicans opt to succumb to the conditions of the maquilas if it means that their families are able to eat. Consequently, many Mexicans select a third option; emigrating to the United States.

A Border Patrol jeep posts at one section of the fence. The fence and the jeep are results of Operation Gatekeeper.

The US in turn, is directly responsible for the “immigration problem” it is currently facing. However, US foreign policy has been erroneously constructed to cure the symptom and not the illness. Operation Gatekeeper is one such plan, implemented during the Clinton administration calling for the militarization of the border. What used to be a 2-3 hour trek across the border into San Diego before Gatekeeper, has now turned into an 18-72 hour excursion across the deserts of California and Arizona.

NAFTA and Operation Gatekeeper have not created jobs in Mexico nor deterred Mexicans from immigrating to the US. Instead, it has caused two important effects: firstly, the influx of thousands of unemployed Mexican immigrants, risking death to enter the US and hopefully earn enough money to send back to their families and second, shifting the point of entry for immigrants eastward into the desert, causing roughly 500 deaths a year, making lucrative the market for people smuggling.

The US is in fact responsible for these effects, yet it has done nothing. That’s why it is up to us to do something.

Islam and our beloved Prophet Mohammed PBUH have been sent down by Allah as a mercy for mankind, not just for Muslims. Unfortunately today, Islam is portrayed as a religion of self preservation and a hindrance to peace. We live in such a world today that pamphlets and conventional methods of dawah are not as far reaching as we would like them to be. Therefore, we must find new, halal ways of spreading the message of Islam in a clear and positive light. With regards to issues such as immigration, Muslims must find ways to contribute to the solution and in the process, display the true nature and perfection of Islam. We must act on any injustice we or others are confronted with in order to spread the message of Islam and to secure the well being and dignity of every human being; this indeed is the essence of Islam.

The remnants of batteries like these are often left behind. The lead that was taken out was buried into the ground, polluting the soil and water.


Affad Shaikh said...

I do not think NAFTA is all that bad. Granted there are negatives, but to be honest and look at the situation, it has brought some good. The issue really is to work to magnify and spread that good and at the same time to show to Americans- good intentioned Americans, that these are the issues that are driving people to cross the border and if we are good intentioned and want to positive change this is what we need to work on doing- bringing feasible development, providing education and also accountability not only of American companies but also Mexican government.

Midory said...

Hello my name is Midory and I am currently working on my architectural thesis. My site is actually around the maquiladoras or the "shawnty neighborhood" that you talk about. I really liked the picture that your pictures that you have shared and have enjoyed your article very much. I am actually from Tijuana and unfortuentaly things are not so safe back home so I have not crossed the border in a bit. I have no access to pictures of that neighborhood and I was wondering if you have any more pictures that you could possibly share with me.. Of you course I can put your name to credit the fact that you have taken then.. Please let me know I would greatly appreciate it..
my email is

Thanks A lot

Mike said...

You're right that border security addresses symptoms, not problems - but you're wrong when you say the US has not created jobs in Mexico, because it's up to the Mexican government to provide opportunities for their people, not the US government. Mexican officials encourage immigration into the US because it heightens remittance payments and provides a Mexican citizen with a job so the Mexican government doesn't have to create one. I refuse and reject this "poor Mexico" premise when the national GDP is one of a handful in the world in the trillions. The Mexican government is 100% at fault for poverty, maquiladora exploitation, and immigration deaths in the US.