Real immigration reform begins by re-examining NAFTA

A little more than 18 years ago, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed by Canada, Mexico and the United States, allowing for greater unfettered trade and investment among the three countries. The bill had the greatest effect on trade between the United States and Mexico, as it eliminated nearly every tariff within 15 years.

I bring this issue up as it bears direct pertinence to the current debate over illegal immigration reform, which will come to a head when the Supreme Court makes a ruling next month on Arizona bill SB 1070. The bill not only orders all immigrants in Arizona to carry certification on their person at all times, but it also grants police officers the right to further investigate any individual of whom the officer has a "reasonable suspicion."

The discussion over SB 1070 that is rearing its ugly, vitriolic head is misguided simply because the law itself addresses the symptoms of the problem, not the root. A much more effective and rational solution would be to seriously look at what forces are driving illegal immigrants into the United States — and NAFTA is certainly one of those forces.

After the removal of tariffs in Mexico, American agribusiness flooded the domestic market with cheaper products, forcing Mexican farmers and local companies out of business. It is estimated that at least 1.5 million Mexican workers were forced out of work in the agricultural industry alone. This trend is not limited to farmers and laborers, as more than 30,000 Mexican businesses have gone belly-up since the passage of NAFTA.

Disenfranchised Mexican workers had few options in their own country, except for the exploitative maquiladora system: factories run by foreign companies and operating under very minimal regulation. Workers are exposed to dangerous conditions and chemicals, work excessively long hours, and are paid criminally low wages. Many of these Mexican laborers thus naturally sought a better life in the United States.


Those who managed to retain farmland were not much better off, and continue to struggle to compete against the large internationals, which now have far less regulation. Indeed, only 6 percent of farms were judged by an official government report to be turning a significant profit. Today, it is estimated that a farm laborer earns one-third of what he did before NAFTA.

It is hypocritical of the United States to enact a trade agreement that forces millions of Mexicans out of a job or into poorer conditions, and then complain when there is an increased inflow of illegal immigrants. And indeed, that influx has grown substantially, from 4 million at the time of NAFTA’s passage to 12 million today.

If we’re serious about real immigration reform, we don’t need to resort to a law that encourages racial profiling — we need to seriously re-examine NAFTA and strongly consider its repeal.

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