Before the immigration debate builds steam later this election year, I really wish candidates at all levels and in every party could spend a few hours in a maquila talking with workers.

A few years ago, I spent two weeks in Guatemala with STITCH, a U.S.-based labor group that supports women workers in Latin America. Once or twice a year, a small group of women travel throughout Guatemala with STITCH, which arranges visits to talk with workers at maquilas and banana plantations and hosts discussions with labor leaders and policy experts. After a few days there, the question becomes not how many immigrants cross into the United States but, why don’t more leave?

While I was there, I met Gloria. Gloria worked 11 hours a day, six days a week, for the privilege of living in a one-room corrugated metal shack, with one exposed light bulb and no running water—except during the four-month rainy season, when the house regularly is flooded. She worked at the Korean-owned textile plant just down the dirt road, but had no one to take care of her four children until she returned home at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. Public schools in Guatemala close in the early afternoon each day.

Gloria was allowed only one bathroom break during the entire workday—and frequently  her paycheck did not include overtime or bonus pay for exceeding work quotas. She made the equivalent of $78 every two weeks and scrimped on water, which she purchased by the barrel at roughly $1.50 per day—more than one-fourth of her wages.

Alioto, the shanty town where Gloria built her home with her own hands, sprawls for miles, thousands of tin and wood shacks tumbling over each other and stretching up the side of the hill across dusty, treeless land. Tens of thousands of people migrated there from rural areas in search of work at maquila plants. Now, even these modern sweatshops are closing throughout Latin America, in search for ever-cheaper labor and higher profit in places like China and Bangladesh.

Earlier this week, hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers packed the streets of Mexico City to protest what few in the U.S. public are even aware of: On Jan. 1, Mexico repealed all tariffs on corn imported from north of the border as part of a 14-year phaseout under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). When these farmers can no longer compete, they will have no choice but to leave their farms for the city, for the maquilas—and for a better opportunity across the border. As CNN reported:

The farmers want the government to renegotiate the 1994 free trade agreement, which removed most trade barriers among Mexico, Canada, and the United States, saying livelihoods are at stake. "NAFTA is very bad, very bad for Mexican consumers and for Mexican producers," said Victor Quintana, head of Democratic Farmers Front, which organized the protest. The farmers complain that U.S. and Canadian grains are heavily subsidized and therefore undermine Mexican products.

So, guess what? The problem isn’t about immigrants who cross borders. The problem starts with trade deals negotiated without consideration of the impact on workers. The problem germinates in the offices of CEOs whose profit-maximization creates a form of 21st century slavery in which workers aren’t technically slaves because they’re "free"—free to work for poverty wages or emigrate.

[Unabashed plug for STITCH's women's delegation to Guatemala. The next trip is June 7–June 14, and includes daily Spanish-language instruction and meetings with unionists fighting for better conditions, discussions on free trade policies and immigration. More here.]