Friday, August 3, 2007

Why Does NAFTA Matter: Reflections on a Journey to the Border

Molly Prince

Why Does NAFTA Matter?

Here's a paper you might find interesting

Antonia was 18, had long dark hair and dark skin and had spent the last four days walking in the desert, trying to cross the border to the United States. She slowly drank water out of a Styrofoam cup provided by the aid station in Nogales, Mexico. She was here because border patrol had returned her here, to the Mexican side of the border. I recognized something about her, a kind of shocked trauma that I felt a few weeks earlier, sitting in the emergency room with broken teeth after a fall. I recognized the similarity but also the difference. My broken teeth, where I was surrounded by my family, with health insurance and countless resources, was not in the same realm as having spent four days in the desert, still being hundreds of miles away from home (Guerrero), and probably having very little money. Antonia and I talked and- briefly- our lives intersected.

I met Antonia because I was on a trip with a group of teachers traveling in the U.S.- Mexico border area to learn more about immigration. We talked with many people including immigrants, priests, volunteers, professors and border patrol agents. We heard powerful stories from individuals and then tried to wrap our minds around the quantity of people living variations of these stories. (An estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants cross the border every year.) We talked a lot about trying to understand the root causes of immigration. NAFTA kept coming up. The priest in Altar talked about it. The professor in Chihuahua talked about it. Ruben, who has worked with immigrants in El Paso for 30 years, talked about NAFTA. (Ruben has also adopted three children he helped to helicopter out of El Salvador after their parents were assassinated because they were organizing unions.) It seemed that people who worked with and cared about immigrants and had had a chance to study the situation had a lot to say about NAFTA.

After returning to Denver, I found myself discussing NAFTA with everyone: my friends, my neighbors, my dad, my grandpa. . . it seemed important. I decided to use this assignment to do some additional research on NAFTA and to try to clearly articulate some important points.

The Basics

NAFTA stands for North American Free Trade Agreement. Its members are Mexico, the United States and Canada. NAFTA is an international treaty which contains a long list of rules about trade including laws about tariffs, agriculture, industry, intellectual property and investment. These rules have legal standing. NAFTA was initiated by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salina de Gortari. It was ratified by the legislatures of the three countries and went into effect in 1994. In the U.S., it passed the House by a vote of (234-200) and the senate by a vote of (61-38).


One reason NAFTA has been confusing to many of us is because of academic, economic jargon and vocabulary which often implies that it is positive. Many sources talk about cooperation between countries and increasing “free trade”. I associate “free” with freedom, which in turn, I associate with the American Revolution, democracy and equality. In fact, free trade and NAFTA are often at odds with democracy and equality. NAFTA might be easier to understand if it was called NAACMIP: North American Agreement that Corporations are More Important than People.

Two Points of Focus

NAFTA is a very long document which I cannot fully describe in five pages (nor understand in a summer) so I have narrowed my focus to two main ideas:
1. Jobs and agriculture
(I chose this focus because of the connection to immigration.)
2. The Investment Provisions (NAFTA court)
(I chose this focus because of how upsetting it is to me.)

Jobs and Agriculture

We met Samuel while staying at a shelter which the Catholic Church provides for migrants in Altar (a small town in Mexico a few hours by car from the U.S. border). Most of the migrants there seemed preoccupied with their own troubles but Samuel thanked us eloquently for giving our attention to the migrant plight and talked with us at length. He was planning to attempt an undocumented crossing the next day and told us that the reason he was crossing was to make money to support his son and daughter. His eyes lit up when he spoke of his daughter and he talked at length about his philosophy of parenting. One of my traveling companions pointed out the sad irony of a situation where loving your children translates to leaving them. Migrant after migrant who we spoke to said that their reason for crossing the border illegally was for work and money. (For poor Mexicans without special connections, it is next to impossible to obtain a legal visa.)

Mexican unemployment is not new with the coming of NAFTA, but NAFTA has made it worse. Advocates of NAFTA say that it has brought jobs to Mexico. This is true. NAFTA is directly linked to the creation of thousands of poorly paying, low level jobs such as those in the maquiladora industry (Salas). However, as Cruz and Rinderman point out: it is important to consider the balance of employment generation –not just how many jobs were created, but also how many were lost.

Many small and medium sized farmers have lost their ability to make a living because of NAFTA. NAFTA’s effect on farmers has been so big that more than 100,000 farmers joined a protest march in Mexico City in 2003. The problem is that NAFTA forbids Mexico from using tariffs on imports. In the past, Mexico used tariffs on imported corn and other foods (such as wheat, soy and beans) in order to protect Mexican farmers. According to Victor Quintana, the professor we spoke with in Chihuahua, compared to farmers in the U.S. Midwest, Mexican farmers have fewer tractors (In 1990 there were 1.6 tractors for every U.S. farmer and 2 tractors for every 100 Mexican farmers), 30 times fewer government subsidies and a more difficult climate for farming. They can’t compete with U.S. corporate industrial farms that continue to receive subsidies and indirect forms of protection. With the tariffs removed, imported U.S. corn has brought down the price of corn so that Mexican farmers cannot make a profit. Multinational companies like Monsanto are profiting from this situation. Most Mexican people are not. According to Victor Quintana, rural migration has skyrocketed since NAFTA and he half-joked that Mexico trades two undocumented immigrants for every ton of U.S. corn.

NAFTA Court and Law

In preparation for NAFTA, Mexico changed their constitution to state that mining has priority over any other land use including agricultural and housing uses (Dhillon). This means that poor Mexican families can be forced off their land in order to make way for foreign-owned mining companies and the mining companies have the full support of the law. Mexico is not the only country where NAFTA is affecting law and democracy. Riding on the bus, one of my traveling companions said to me, “Did you know that NAFTA has its own court? If a company thinks some policy or law might threaten their profits they can take it to court and corporate profit trumps public health and national and state law. In California they passed a state law banning a gasoline additive. The company took the case to NAFTA court and California was not allowed to have that law.” This sounded too crazy to be true but further research confirmed it. The gasoline additive California tried to ban is called MTBE. MTBE can cause cancer and was leaching into local ground water. The Canadian Methanex Corporation won its case in court.

The official language that sets up the NAFTA court is: “the investor-state clause”. Kuhn, Anderson & Foster explain:
The “investor-state” clause gives foreign investors the right to sue governments for compensation over public-interest laws that might undermine their profits. It presents a serious threat to local, regional and national governments’ ability to establish rules to serve the public good. . . Corporations seeking damages under the investor-state clause take their claims to special NAFTA tribunals assembled under the auspices of the United Nations Commission for International Trade and Law or the International Center for Settlement of Disputes at the World Bank. Unless the parties agree otherwise, the hearings are held entirely in secret, with no obligation to release a written record, to allow any type of participation of private citizens, NGO’s, or state or local government officials, or even to reveal details of the rulings. (69)


NAFTA connects to many important issues: human rights, the environment, law, economics, immigration are only a few. NAFTA does not work in isolation. These issues are complicated and many factors are involved. However, NAFTA is a powerful structure that supports corporate power over the public good. There are alternatives to NAFTA. The European Union is one example of a different approach. Supporters of NAFTA believe in free trade but if I may end with a quotation from the Hemispheric Social Alliance: “In no country in the world has the market alone achieved sustainability and social justice”.

Cruz, M. & Rindermann, R. (2003) NAFTA’s Impact on Mexican Agriculture: An Overview. In Lessons from NAFTA: the High Cost of “Free” Trade. (pp 69-74). Hemispheric Social Alliance. (under “Lecciones de TLCN: El alto costo del “libre” comercio” click on “English)
Dhillon, M. (2007) Canadian Mining in Mexico: Made in Canada Violence. .
Hansen-Kuhn, K., Anderson, S.,& Foster, J. (2003) Investment Provisions Threaten Democracy in All Three Countries. In Lessons from NAFTA: the High Cost of “Free” Trade. (pp 69-74). Hemispheric Social Alliance. (under “Lecciones de TLCN: El alto costo del “libre” comercio” click on “English)
Massey, D.S. (2005) Backfire at the Border: Why Enforcement without Legalization Cannot Stop Illegal Immigration. CATO institute, No. 29, 1-13.
Salas, C. (2002) Mexico’s Haves and Have-Nots: NAFTA Sharpens the Divide. NACLA Report on the Americas. 35 (4), 32-35.

1 comment:

Piper said...

Thanks so much for writing this and sharing your experiences. The insights on the court were really helpful and I like the idea of pursuing something more like the European Union.

My friend sent me this article ( about migration from Poland. It helps me put perspective on how these issues are global as well as highlight the possibility humane and just reform holds for our country and others.