NAFTA: Unintended Immigration Consequences Now Apparent

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect twenty years ago, on New Year’s Day, 1994, there was no shortage of predictions – both dire and glowingly optimistic – about its long-term effects. Supporters, like Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, argued that NAFTA would raise the standard of living in all three countries – Mexico, Canada, and the United States – by harnessing the law of comparative advantage and squeezing out economic inefficiencies.

By contrast, NAFTA opponents expected massive and unprecedented job loss in the United States, especially in manufacturing, once trade barriers were lifted. The most prominent member of this camp was the independent presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, who predicted a “giant sucking sound” from all those American jobs being siphoned off to Mexico.

Though economists are still debating the costs and benefits of NAFTA to the U.S. economy, and that of our trading partners, it appears that neither side got it entirely right: the truth is somewhere in the middle, and we can leave it to the academics to decide precisely where. Most, however, would agree that NAFTA’s record has been a mixed bag.

This is particularly true where immigration is concerned. At the time, many predicted that NAFTA would lead to a more prosperous Mexico, and hoped that more jobs in Mexico would mean fewer illegal immigrants to the United States. For thousands of Mexicans who found work in new maquiladora factories in the country’s interior, miles from the U.S. border, NAFTA lived up to this promise.

For millions more in Mexico, however – especially in rural areas – NAFTA meant foreign competition from a U.S. agricultural sector that was far more developed than Mexico’s, as National Public Radio recently reported. [See Wave of Illegal Immigrants Gains Speed After NAFTA, by Ted Robbins, National Public Radio, 26.Dec.2013.] It’s a classic case of unintended consequences: according to NPR, NAFTA made it possible for massive amounts of U.S. corn to be sold in Mexico, and the competition drove at least two million Mexican farm workers out of the countryside and into the cities, with many eventually immigrating illegally to the United States.

Philip Martin, an immigration demographer at the University of California at Davis, told NPR that he expected a wave of illegal immigration after NAFTA, but nothing like the one that actually took place: “I thought that peak migration would have been in the late ’90s, and predicted that it would start falling after 2000. In fact, Mexico-U.S. migration was more like a 20-year hump, as opposed to a ten-year hump.”

As NPR’s Ted Robbins points out, “That 20-year hump in illegal immigration led to a massive militarization along the border and to millions living underground in the U.S.” It also has contributed to the bottleneck at U.S. immigration courts, adding thousands upon thousands of removal (deportation) cases to court dockets already jammed with the cases of lawful immigrants. Whatever their origin, all of these cases are presided over by judges who are among the most overworked in the federal judiciary – nearly half of whom will be eligible to retire in 2014. [See Nearly Half Immigration Judges Eligible to Retire, by Laura Wides-Munoz, Associated Press, 24.Dec.2013.]

To be fair, NAFTA didn’t create this problem; Congress did, by failing to respond in a timely manner to the facts on the ground. As the case of NAFTA demonstrates, large and complex policy changes usually have unintended consequences, but that’s no reason why Congress should avoid streamlining and modernizing our immigration system. As we have seen, inaction has consequences, too.

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