U.S. trade policies absent from debate

The North American Free Trade Agreement’s effects on Mexico have played an important role in the influx of immigration.

by Chelsey Perkins

Let’s be honest here: Most of the news we get day-to-day comes in headlines and sound bites. This shows in the way we discuss political issues and the way political issues are framed for us.

The immigration debate is a supreme example in that rarely do we hear discussion about how U.S. trade policy plays a significant role in the “problem” we face today.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994 during the Clinton administration, has proved to be an astounding failure in at least one respect – illegal immigration. In June 1993, President Clinton told Larry King that NAFTA would not only benefit the United States, but would have drastic effects on Mexico as well: “If you have more growth on both sides, then you’ll have less illegal immigration from Mexico, more people will be able to get jobs at home and stay with their families, their incomes will rise, and they’ll buy more American products.”

Now, I loved Slick Willy just as much as the next person, but this statement in today’s context just sounds plain ludicrous. In fact, not only has NAFTA not benefited Mexico in several ways, many of the problems Clinton and other political elites promised it would fix have been exacerbated by the free trade agreement, including lowered wages and poor working conditions in the manufacturing sector, grave disadvantages for the campesinos, or rural farmers, of Mexico and increased illegal immigration to the United States as a result.

In Mexico, the maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border account for a majority of Mexican exports. It is true that since NAFTA was implemented, exports from Mexico to the United States have increased; however, as the exports have increased, wages paid to manufacturing workers – disproportionately women – have decreased from $5 per day to $4 per day.

NAFTA eliminated subsidies for subsistence farmers in Mexico as well as eliminated floor prices set for corn and ceiling prices set for tortillas. The result of the flood of corn imports from the United States – shipments to Mexico grew 15-fold from 1993 to 1999 – led to many campesinos unable to sustain their farms to quit farming, and with few viable alternatives, pack it up and try for a new life in the United States.

NAFTA has created an atmosphere that forces workers in Mexico to continue to be underpaid, exploited, and treated as an opportunity for obscenely rich multinational corporations and the economic interests of the United States, or to cross the border and make an attempt at “living the American dream.”

Since the implementation of harsher border policies to combat the influx of immigrants, workers have found it much harder to make return trips to Mexico for fear of arrest upon return to the United States. Contrary to the aims of the policies, this has led to an increasing number of Mexican citizens who are simply not returning to Mexico. This means that workers who previously would send money back to their families now bring their families with them, creating a much larger population of undocumented workers.

The Bush Administration is currently pushing similar free trade policies with Panama, Colombia and Peru, albeit current proposals include some labor provisions. I hope that as the policies receive greater media coverage, the possible implications, demonstrated by NAFTA, are included in the coverage.

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]