Free Trade and Immigration

Immigration and free trade agreements remain potent issues in the primaries and no doubt will reemerge in full force in the November election. But no one seems to be drawing the connection between the two.
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Immigration and free trade agreements remain potent issues in the primaries and no doubt will reemerge in full force in the November election. But no one seems to be drawing the connection between the two.

The Republican candidates have been competing with each other over who is toughest in keeping illegal immigrants out. The Democratic candidates have been competing over who has a better, more humane, approach to comprehensive immigration reform and resolving the problems of undocumented workers and their families.

Twenty-one years after its enactment in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement remains a dirty word in rust belt states, blamed for exporting living wage jobs and hollowing out communities.

Many Americans assume that Nafta gave away jobs to the benefit of Mexico. They would be surprised to know that the trade agreement remains as deeply controversial there as it is here. The president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who negotiated it is the most reviled in recent Mexican history.

I was working at a research institute in Mexico City when Nafta was being negotiated. Our task was to predict its likely impact -- universally touted as favorable by corporate and political elites in the United States, Mexico and Canada. A favorite formulation, repeated by President Salinas de Gortari, U.S. ambassador to Mexico John Negroponte, and U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton was that with Nafta Mexico would stop exporting workers and instead export products.

Their argument was that Nafta would so increase trade among the three countries that it would generate new jobs in each to meet the greater demand--a win, win, win proposition. The increased demand for Mexican products and resulting jobs would, in particular, eliminate the need to migrate northward in search of work and income.

I thought long and hard about that argument and came to precisely the opposite conclusion: that Nafta would accelerate migration to the United States.

The United States had already had an experience with free trade accelerating immigration from a Latin American country. In 1948 under Operation Bootstrap, an ambitious development plan promoted by the United States, farmers were encouraged to export surplus products to Puerto Rico. The result was to undersell Puerto Rican farmers, setting off a decades-long outmigration from the island to the United States. In 1950 just 12% of Puerto Ricans lived in the U.S. Over the next decades migration accelerated, reaching the tipping point in 2004 when over half of Puerto Ricans now lived on the U.S. mainland.

Was Operation Bootstrap and what it did to Puerto Rico the prototype for what would happen with Nafta in Mexico? One could only speculate before 1994 when Nafta was enacted.

But we are now, after the fact, able to see that history, in this case trade history, did indeed repeat itself. Over a 15 year period, as tariffs on corn imports, that most indigenous of Mexican products, were dropped, Iowa corn flooded the Mexican market, destroying the livelihoods of millions of peasant farmers. What were they to do but do as Puerto Ricans and other countrymen had done before them--join the migrant stream to the United States in search of work.

In census year 1990, before Nafta, 13.6 % of Mexican-descent people in the world lived in the United States. By 2000, six years after Nafta, that proportion jumped to 17.5%, the largest surge ever in the history of migration between the two countries.

What I didn't anticipate in 1992 was that 24 years later Nafta would remain an electoral issue. Far from being accepting it as a fait accompli, voters in both Mexico and the United States remain deeply opposed to it.

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