The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 is the first example of a Mexican and American economic collaboration post World War II. The execution of NAFTA marks a change in history in which a highly developed country such as the United States entered a partnership with a developing country such as Mexico. At no other time in history had such a concrete legal agreement been made between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’. As outlined in Article 102, some of NAFTA’s primary objectives were to: eliminate barriers to trade…and facilitate the cross-border movement of, goods and services between the territories of the Parties…[and] promote conditions of fair competition in the free trade area…” (DFAIT). An analysis of NAFTA’s effects on the US-Mexican border between the years 1994-2001 will illustrate the paradox of creating an economically “porous” border yet a physically and politically tightened border, and how this paradox subsequently affects immigration policies on the United States federal level. As historian Peter Andreas notes, “a barricaded border and a border-less economy [were] being created simultaneously” (Andreas, 593). Thus, this essay will analyze NAFTA as an economic collaboration between Mexico and the United States and illustrate its consequent effects on other social policies such as immigration.

While many presume that the United States introduced NAFTA to expand its already powerful economic market, it was the Mexican government that actually proposed the idea of NAFTA to the United States, (Canada, the third party in NAFTA had already been in a trade agreement with the US since 1989) (Fernandez-Kelly et al) (Peach et al, 483). As a result, historians Fernandez-Kelly and Massey argue that the Mexican perspective of NAFTA is often overlooked.

Representatives from the US who worked on NAFTA were powerful businessmen, bankers, politicians, and lobbyists of the likes of Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller (Fernandez-Kelly et al, 102). While it was created as an equal partnership between three countries, it is clear that the United States had different needs than Mexico. For the US, the goals of NAFTA were to provide factory owners with Mexican labor, and to open up the markets by eliminating barriers so as to increase “capital mobility” in newly rising economic sectors (Fernandez-Kelly et al, 103). This should not suggest that the United States was looking to exploit the Mexican economy. On the contrary, the US initially sought to “ensure that Mexico…would have the funds to increase their extension of credit” (Fernandez-Kelly et al, 102). The United States needed Mexican labor just as much as Mexicans needed work, and the Mexican economy depended on new trading privileges to secure their economy.

Whereas businessmen, bankers and lobbyists were responsible for representing the United States in the NAFTA negotiations, Mexico had representatives from commercial interests such as telecommunications firms (one of the newly rising economic sectors of the region), as well as from the government (Fernandez-Kelly et al, 103). From Mexico’s perspective, there was more to gain by joining NAFTA. It was hit hard by the economic crisis involving the ISI program and would greatly benefit from a trade negotiation with the world’s most powerful country, the United States. By committing to join this agreement, Mexico was also committing itself to adopting the current economic paradigm of the time, centered on neo-liberal economic thinking. In this sense, Fernandez-Kelly illustrates that under Mexican President Salinas, NAFTA was part of a larger plan to open borders to trade and foreign investment with other Latin American countries (Fernandez-Kelly, 103).

Between the years 1994 to 2001, trade between Mexico and the United States increased exponentially, and with this increase in trade came an increase in immigration. To combat this immigration, the United States increased border patrol and harshened immigration policies. The paradox of making the border more permeable for economic means while restricting access to immigration is the one of the most contested and analyzed effects of NAFTA. Between 1994 and 1997, the number of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) patrol workers increased by 67 percent (Andreas, 596). During this time the region became highly militarized as more than 10,000 US soldiers were deployed to secure the border against drug trafficking and immigration (Andreas, 597). In 1996 the INS stated, “the border is harder to cross now than at any time in history” (Andreas, 598). Making the borders harder to cross led to the rise of smugglers, whose occupation was to illegally ‘smuggle’ Mexican citizens into the US. The ‘smuggling’ business has become very intricate over the years and as one INS official notes, “alien smugglers have developed a sophisticated infrastructure to successfully counteract U.S. Border Patrol operations along the southwest border” (Andreas, 600).  Another great paradox caused by NAFTA, is that immigrants who had successfully smuggled across to the US stayed in the United States, rather than moving between the two countries, as was common prior to NAFTA. While the US government was imposing stricter physical and technological provisions along the border, it became harder for Mexican migrants to travel back and forth, and thus stayed along border cities in the United States and created a new “image” of the US-Mexico border. It is important to note that while NAFTA began as an economic partnership primarily between the United States and Mexico, immigration control and the protection of the border is mostly controlled by the United States.

The main question that remains is whether NAFTA made any tangible improvements during 1994 to 2001. Statistically, the border region did not experience any great population growth during that time period. In fact, the population along the border grew at a rate of 2.3 percent per year pre-NAFTA, but only 1.9 percent post-NAFTA (Peach et al, 485). In a report issued in 2000, there had been no significant economic gains, nor significant economic losses. In terms of immigration, the conclusions are similar. With the rise of smuggling undermining the US government, it is hard to have empirical statistics on whether immigration has increased, decreased, or has done neither. Ironically, leaders from both the US and Mexico had agreed to restrain immigration with the signing of NAFTA. Yet as Douglas Massey explains, “The provisions of NAFTA…help to bring about the social and economic transformations that generate migrants,” and there is no doubt that the US relies on labor migrants.

 For these reasons and because of this paradox, critics argue that NAFTA has been a gateway for the United States to exploit Mexican migrants and the Mexican economy. There are many criticisms that NAFTA is another example of unfair trade negotiations that results in the exploitation of Mexican migrants and the economy, rather than being a true economic collaboration between the two nations.

The following videos are excellent resources detailing the struggle of Mexican workers since the enactment of NAFTA.



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