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20 Years Later, NAFTA's Dramatic Impact on Oregon

City of Woodburn

Twenty years ago this month President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law.  Few foresaw that it would change the face of Oregon.


Downtown Woodburn seems to be in good economic shape. Anthony Veliz, who owns a marketing firm here, shows us around:

"All of these businesses here, as we're walking are Latino-owned businesses. King's Den barbershop and we have these little tienditas, little stores, shops, zapateria y joyeria.   We have a Mexican grocery store....we can go in...."

At Lucero's you can buy fresh herbs including epazote:

"Cuanto cuesta? Uno, noventa y nueve...gracias!"

These stores exist in part because of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that was supposed to eliminate subsidies between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada.  While Mexico eliminated subsidies to farmers, the U.S. did not, and starting in 1994, immigration from Mexico to the U.S. accelerated. It's a major reason that the Mid-Willamette Valley is almost one quarter Latino.  It happened to Jaime Arredondo's family. Arredondo is an official with the labor and social services organization PCUN.  His grandfather grew corn in Mexico and employed many family members on his farm:

"He would use his product to trade to acquire other things like clothing and food, those sorts of things. He wasn't rich, but he just had enough without the temptation or necessity to leave rural Mexico, but that changed after NAFTA."

Celebrating in downtown WoodburnEdit | Remove

Erik Nicholson adds that, "After NAFTA was signed we saw a massive exodus of people from Mexico, from the rural parts of the country coming north to work in agriculture here in the states."

Nicholson is Vice President of the United Farmworkers union. He says corn from the U.S. began flooding Mexico. At the same time, the economy in Oregon was booming. Recruiters, some of them staff from Oregon farms, headed south to find workers. Nicholson says at first,  it didn't cost would-be immigrants much to make the trip north:

"In the 90's, early 90's, it was unheard of for someone to pay more than fifty bucks to cross the border.  Now those same people are charging thousands of dollars.  We've seen on average about five thousand dollars, as high as nine-thousand dollars to come into the states."

Some came to join family members who had been granted amnesty in the late 80's.  This new generation of immigrants resulted in a 145-percent increase in the population of Latinos in Oregon in the 90's to 275-thousand and it continued until 2005, when the effects of NAFTA are considered to have ebbed.  There are now a half million Latinos in Oregon. Carmen Gonzalez has a talk show on a Spanish-language radio station in Woodburn:

"Gracias a nuestra audiencia..."

Along with crafts, she and her sisters would make tortillas and chips by hand and sell them at markets. But they couldn't compete with the plastic bags of tortillas made with the subsidized corn that started coming into Mexico:

"Un golpe tremendo..."

Family members followed one another north:

"Como cincuenta, desde los....."

Fifty members of Gonzalez's family came to Oregon, although 15 of them have returned.  But it wasn't all about agriculture.  Every major U.S. retailer began setting up shop in Mexico.  Lynn Stephen, a University of Oregon anthropology professor, says there was a ripple effect:

"For example, the WalMart in Oaxaca City does not make purchases from regional businesses in Oaxaca. They get their stuff from wherever in the world they can get it the cheapest, clothes from Bangladesh or brooms from China that are going to be sold in WalMart in Oaxaca. That puts the local or the regional clothing business and the mills and the broom makers out of business."

Stephen says the Mexican government knew that jobs would be lost:

"I listened to some very high level government officials talk about NAFTA and very deliberately, very strategically with the belief that they would move these farmers out of farming. Immigrations was the only job. It was the only sort of outlet."

The idea was that those who lost their jobs would get new manufacturing jobs in the maquiladoras in the north of Mexico where components would come in tax-free and things like refrigerators or tv's would be assembled.  But many of those jobs went to China instead and the jobless Mexicans went to places like Oregon, with a range of impacts.  In Jaime Arredondo's case, some of his family is in Mexico, some in Canada, some in Oregon, and some that go back and forth:

"It's divided the family. The family unity is sort of destroyed, really."

But in Woodburn, the migration took place as downtown businesses were moving out to the strip near Interstate 5 and storefronts that might have been empty today are filled by the new Latino immigrants.


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