As ratified during the Clinton administration, the original NAFTA created a trilateral trade bloc removing most tariffs and obstacles to commerce within North America, and set rules concerning the rights of foreign investors in each country. Issues of intellectual property, the environment, and labor standards within each country were touched upon in the original treaty and expanded upon in last year’s renegotiation—the so-called USMCA—currently under consideration by the Congress. But other than some minor provisions for high-end professional and investor visas, both agreements were silent on the question of immigration. Protectionist and nativist skeptics of NAFTA feared the I-word (integration, across borders) and zealously guarded against it; business interests figured that, because they already had no problem attracting workers to cross the border unlawfully for work, they had best not go there.
NAFTA didn’t necessarily have to create unfettered freedom of labor movement, as the European Union did, but it should and could have done two things, reflecting the close, symbiotic nature of the relationship between the three societies and economies.
First, the United States should have adjusted upward the number of visas made available to Mexicans. Because it did not, Mexicans who came to the U.S. in pursuit of work had little choice but to live in the shadows. And remember, Mexicans weren’t crossing the borders in such large numbers during the 1990s in pursuit of public welfare or colder weather. They were lured over (many recruited at home) with jobs by employers all too happy to rely on undocumented labor, entire industries that would collapse if the U.S. deported them all overnight.
Second, the three North American partners should have jointly created policies for addressing immigration from the rest of the world. The number of Mexicans crossing the border without authorization peaked more than a decade ago, and the overall number of unauthorized Mexicans has been decreasing during the period Trump has been ratcheting up his rhetoric about all those “bad hombres.” But the surge in Central Americans seeking asylum in North America does pose a shared, regional challenge that points to the need for an EU-like coordinated approach. Migration has stressed Europe’s union as well, of course, but the concept underlying the Continent’s Schengen (establishing the notion of one border between signatory states) and Dublin Agreements (stipulating that asylum seekers must request asylum in the first EU member state they arrive in) makes a great deal of sense.
North America today is criminally unprepared to handle the hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing their countries. Both Mexicans and Americans have been shocked in recent months by the recurring stories of families separated at the border, the conditions immigrant kids face in detention centers (with U.S. officials quibbling over whether they deserve soap and toothpaste), and the scenes of large caravans of Central Americans making their way north to seek asylum in the United States. This week, shock turned to utter horror as newspapers featured heart-wrenching front-page photos of an El Salvadoran father and his 2-year-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande, and an equally poignant shot of a Haitian migrant and her small child begging for help in Tapachula, Chiapas.