Linking NAFTA and Immigration

As Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama slug out the Ohio round of their Democratic primary fight, the issue of NAFTA has returned to the center of debate, revealing deep, unresolved tension in the Democratic Party 15 years after the passage of the landmark trade agreement.It's not hard to see why knocking NAFTA makes for good politics in Ohio. The state has lost more than 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2000. Anger spurred by these losses played a major role in Ohio voters' choice of Democrat Sherrod Brown an outspoken opponent of NAFTA as their U.S. senator in 2006. And NAFTA's political significance was demonstrated again in exit polls from the Feb. 19 Wisconsin primary, which found 70 percent of Democratic voters hold the treaty responsible for job losses in the Midwest.

But while the candidates have taken political shots at each other over trade, neither one has been specific about how he or she would change the agreement. Indeed, Hillary Clinton's vague call for more labor and environmental protections in NAFTA echoes the toothless side agreements that her husband used as a fig leaf for supporting a trade agreement with major corporate backing in 1993. Obama hasn't gone much further.

So would either a President Obama or Clinton live up to their campaign promises to Ohio voters and change NAFTA? Surprisingly, the answer may be yes.

NAFTA's relevance to this year's election and the likelihood that a Democratic president will have to scrap or change it is due as much to its role in accelerating undocumented migration from Mexico as to the visceral reaction swing voters in Midwestern states such as Ohio have to job losses it causes here at home.

During the NAFTA debate in 1993, advocates assured the U.S. and Mexican people that it would greatly alleviate unauthorized immigration by increasing employment opportunities in Mexico and closing the gap between U.S. and Mexican wages. But the promise of prosperity has been a mirage for millions of Mexicans: the value of the Mexican minimum wage dropped 23 percent in NAFTA's first decade; 19 million more Mexicans are living in poverty than 20 years ago, and today, one quarter of Mexico's population cannot afford basic foods.

Increased income disparity and poverty in the post-NAFTA years correlated with a sharp rise in migration to the United States, especially from the Mexican countryside. Even the most conservative estimates make it clear that during the first decade of NAFTA the annual number of undocumented immigrants arriving in the United States from Mexico nearly doubled.

While the bulk of the American immigration reform debate in the past year has focused on dueling proposals for higher border fences or restrictive guest-worker programs, some advocates have begun to state the obvious: If you don't address the root causes of economic insecurity, no fence will keep Mexicans from crossing the border in urgent search of opportunities that have disappeared at home. Indeed, both Obama and Clinton have started to make this link in their public appearances.

While free-trade advocates will try to portray the agreement as sacrosanct, a Democratic Congress and president could do much to fix NAFTA. The first step lies in rebuilding America's fraying relationship with Mexico's people. A president offering to fix the worst aspects of the agreement would be hailed as a friend.

Short of canceling the agreement outright, the United States, Mexico and Canada could agree to a series of steps to shield the most vulnerable farmers and workers. First among these would be to restore the power of national governments to shape agricultural policies with a special eye to stabilizing small and subsistence-level farmers, who are the most easily
displaced. Additionally, we should assist communities that have been the hardest hit by targeting government, private and nongovernmental investments to grass-roots initiatives that stabilize communities and, in Mexico, reduce
the pressure to migrate.

To develop the tools needed for an intelligent rethinking of NAFTA, Congress should immediately mandate a bias-free and comprehensive study of NAFTA's impacts that includes employment and income distribution in all three NAFTA
countries, as well as on immigration. Such a study guided by reality, not blind faith in free-trade ideology can serve any incoming administration as a road map for change. To date, such a study has never been carried out.

This election year, the confluence of economic insecurity at home and abroad with growing immigration offers a unique opportunity to fix NAFTA. If a President Obama or Clinton spends the political capital necessary to link the issues of NAFTA and immigration, the payoff politically and in terms of real change for real people on both sides of the border could be enormous.

Ted Lewis is Mexico human rights director for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based global human rights organization.

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