Coronavirus Has Mexico’s Workers Pinned Between U.S. Business Interests and Their President’s Obsessive Austerity

The pandemic has been used to restrict immigration, violate labor rights, protect defense contractors, and double down on dangerous political rhetoric.

A worker wearing a protective mask operates machinery at the Standex Electronics manufacturing facility in Agua Prieta, Sonora state, Mexico, on Monday, April 27, 2020. Standex Electronics Inc., which designs parts for medical equipment such as CT scanners and x-ray machines, as well as components used in the utility grid and the defense industry, reopened its Sonora facility at roughly one-third of its capacity and with strict social-distancing rules in place. Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A worker at the Standex Electronics manufacturing facility in Agua Prieta, Mexico, on April 27, 2020.

Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The United States and Mexico are each enveloped in their own stumbling, disjointed response to the new coronavirus pandemic. The crisis is revealing the failures of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, and the cynical ways in which interest groups, corporations, and plutocrats take advantage of it.

The neighboring countries could deploy a coordinated response to the pandemic, because their contagion curves are weeks apart. A bold and creative plan that would establish a collaborative protocol to look out for cases at the border, or strategically increase the production of medical equipment, could pool the resources of both nations and save many more lives.

Instead, the coronavirus crisis has been used to further restrict immigration, violate labor rights, protect defense contractors, and double down on inflammatory and dangerous political rhetoric.

The pandemic shows how easily business interests are placed above the lives of Mexican workers.

The pandemic shows how easily business interests are placed above the lives of Mexican workers. The U.S. National Association of Manufacturers, weapons makers and U.S. officials have urged the Mexican government to open its economy in order to minimize the disruption of North American supply chains. They need Mexico’s labor because final products rely on components produced south of the border.

Unfortunately, the pressure seems to be working. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador declared that he will open Mexico’s manufacturing sector days before America’s automotive industry opens. This could be a huge mistake with major ramifications for workers. The coronavirus spread in Mexico later than in the U.S. and is evolving at a different pace. Mexico expects cases to pick up until the first or second week of May and thus, may need to stay closed longer than the United States.

Failing to allow Mexico to follow its natural curve and quarantine may mean even more suffering and death. Mexican officials from the border state of Chihuahua testified in mid-March that 13 of the state’s 16 fatalities from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, were workers at a factory owned by the U.S. automotive company Lear. Strikes have popped up in factories along the border, demanding a halt to production, yet, in Juaréz, to take one example, 30 percent of manufacturers remain open. Organizers fighting for their lives get fired and production continues as normal. As El País reported, Electrolux, a corporation that makes laundry machines in Juaréz for American consumers, paused operations only after one of their workers died.

On the migration front, the pandemic has become the perfect excuse to advance xenophobic agendas. U.S. President Donald Trump has decided that immigrants are a risk to U.S. labor markets and has barred people from receiving green cards, suspended family-based immigration, and put in place mechanisms for fast deportations. In addition, asylum hearings have been canceled, leaving thousands of people stranded and exposed in refugee camps at Mexican border towns.

More than 200 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in U.S. immigrant detention centers that hold almost 30,000 people in overcrowded and unsanitary facilities. The United Nations, human rights groups, and members of the U.S. Congress have called for the immediate release of migrants amid this humanitarian catastrophe. But the Trump administration still callously refuses to let the vast majority of them go.

Fast-tracked deportations have taken a particularly harsh toll by increasing the reach of the deadly virus. The more than 10,000 migrants who have been expelled from the U.S. under new coronavirus regulations have brought the virus to countries where health care systems are more precarious. Journalist Camilo Montoya-Galvez estimated this week that 20 percent of the total Covid-19 cases in Guatemala are deported migrants. In Mexico, 10 percent of cases in the border state of Tamaulipas have been deportees, according reports from local authorities on April 20.

These measures are supposedly temporary, but Trump’s advisers have declared that they see them as just a first step toward curbing immigration in the long term.

Amid all of these challenges, Mexico’s most vulnerable lack proper protection and economic support from their own government.

López Obrador is a hardcore austerity proponent who refuses to increase his country’s public debt in the face of economic disaster and whose social programs reach less than half of the poor population. His response to the crisis has been limited to implementing his regular social agenda and providing $1,000 credits at a 6 percent interest rate to 3 million businesses in the formal and informal sectors.

Unsurprisingly, wealthy Mexicans remain better insulated from the crisis. After López Obrador refused to use public resources to bail out Mexican plutocrats, corporations have been given credit directly from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Business organizations representing Mexico’s wealthiest corporations had previously held several meetings with López Obrador and his cabinet to propose a heavily regressive economic relief package. They requested unconditional tax privileges, access to new oil contracts, loans at preferable rates, and even had the audacity to propose freezing all tax audits — a sweet gift for tax evaders.

Meanwhile, the Mexican middle classes and most of the poor have practically no defense against the obsessive austerity of López Obrador, Mexican plutocrats, and elite-driven U.S.-Mexico diplomacy.

The Mexican middle classes and most of the poor have practically no defense against the obsessive austerity of López Obrador, Mexican plutocrats, and elite-driven U.S.-Mexico diplomacy.

Drug cartels have been picking up the slack. Criminal organizations including the Sinaloa cartel are delivering food packages in vulnerable areas affected by the pandemic. This should not be taken as purely altruistic, of course; the cartels know this is how they become even more influential and entrenched in the communities they “serve.”

The American public has not been informed of the tremendous failure of the U.S.-Mexico Covid-19 response. Between ludicrous accusations by right-wing columnists that Mexico’s president is “using the coronavirus crisis to advance his socialist agenda,” and open support for Mexican elites to “press [their plan] upon their president,” few U.S. media outlets have shown interest in exposing the critical role that U.S. and Mexican establishments are playing in empowering organized crime, killing workers, and spreading the virus at the border.

It is not too late to change course and hold the powerful of both countries accountable. America and Mexico need to graduate from backroom bilateral negotiations and instead collaborate on an intelligent, socially ambitious partnership — to improve links among laboratories, engage in a constructive dialogue regarding the development of rapid testing, and coordinate the eventual distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Mexican authorities say they are going after companies that refused to close production lines even as their workers fell ill and died. The U.S. should support this initiative and do the same for U.S.-based employers that risked the lives of Mexican immigrants.

Advancing unionization of workforces on both sides of the border could improve working conditions in the manufacturing industry. In addition, both countries should regulate the export of heavily processed food to Mexico to help prevent diabetes and other conditions that are risk factors that increase the mortality rate of respiratory diseases like Covid-19.

The wealthy, well-connected, and powerful of both nations cannot continue to take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to further enrich themselves and push a heartless, xenophobic agenda.

Join The Conversation