On Monday, March 27, 40,000 high school students staged a walkout across Southern California. It seemed that most reporters who covered the story touched on the idea that perhaps many of the students did not quite understand the depth of the issue and just wanted a day off of school or a chance to be heard. I would like to argue, however, that most of the “adults” who have involved themselves in this issue don’t quite understand the depth of it either, and I believe that this argument is occurring at the tailpipe of the problem. This argument has become a great distraction from the most important part of the problem – the engine that is our capitalist economy – and the mixed messages that immigrants are receiving from U.S. businesses, our tax dollars and our purchases.

My question is, why are so many people risking so much to try and make a living here? This issue cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, and it is illogical to assume that our lifestyles and economy did not play a large role in creating this problem. It is appropriate here to bring the topic of free trade and export subsidies to the table because export subsidies have played a significant role in creating an economical imbalance between our neighbors to the south and us. There has been a growing trend in rural Mexico, where one farm after another is failing to support the families that rely on it because of the large influx of subsidized U.S. grain pouring in over the border. For decades now, a percentage of our tax dollars has helped support the largely mechanized grain farmers in the middle of our country, not so that they can stay in business, but so that their grain products can stay competitive in the international market. The collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference in Cancun, Mexico, was a signal that export subsidies create a trade imbalance that many developing countries are no longer willing to accept. For a few years now, the WTO has been attempting to curb these export subsidies that some developed countries – especially the U.S. – have used to distort global trade, but, in the meantime, failing farmers have moved north, where their skills are welcomed by farmers here.

The Republican Party is not quite sure how to tackle this immigration problem because some of the same large businesses that the party favors are the very industries that rely on cheap labor to increase their profit margins. The meatpacking industry, for example, has gone so far as to advertise for labor on Mexican radio stations. Undocumented workers cannot formally complain about receiving less than minimum wage or being injured on the job. These mixed messages are preventing any possible solutions. In addition to the facts that businesses depend on “guest workers” and that our tax dollars are funding the export of U.S.-grown grains into Mexico, we continue to make purchases based on price. We buy the cheaper strawberries, fast food, clothing, you name it, without realizing that this cheapness needs to be made up somehow, and that “somehow” is the millions of people who are now living here. See, the first law of thermodynamics states that energy is conserved and transferred from one form to another. Based on this law, if we as a society want cheap commodities, then we must have cheap labor. If we send enough energy in the form of subsidized grain into developing countries, then we have to accept the results of the imbalance that we create by doing so. By trying to pass legislation in the form of a poorly written House bill that would criminalize compassionate workers who want to indiscriminately help people and would send millions of people away, we are trying to cheat the first law of thermodynamics.

I realize that I have just barely scratched the surface of the mammoth problem that is hiding behind this bickering over how to handle the massive influx of people who have come into this country as a result of our powerful capitalistic engine and free trade. The problem is not immigration, and our politicians need to think more holistically about how we can begin to tackle this energy-balance equation. This problem is another example of why free trade is not “free,” why we must realize the strength of the message that we send with our purchases and the allocation of our tax dollars and why you can’t cheat the first law of thermodynamics.

Andrea Angus is a UCSB alumnus.