Immigration Remains Key NAFTA Issue

<i> Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin). He is now working on a book about U.S. foreign policy for the Twentieth Century Fund</i>

The North American Free Trade Agreement will encourage foreign investment in Mexico and create jobs there. Because Mexicans will have jobs at home, they won’t come north looking for work. NAFTA, there fore, will reduce immigration from Mexico to the United States. Right?

Wrong. NAFTA could mean millions of additional immigrants over the next 20 years. This is the conclusion of a study by NAFTA advocate--and Clinton Administration Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner--Doris Meissner. Other studies by pro-NAFTA groups, like the Institute for International Economics, say the same thing: A vote for NAFTA is a vote for more immigration for the rest of this decade, and possibly longer.

Why? Think farms. Roughly 24 million Mexicans live in rural areas supporting themselves on small farms. NAFTA will force millions of them off the land faster than it creates jobs for them in Mexico’s industries. The net result: Up to 20 million people will leave Mexico’s countryside and flood into its cities over the next generation.


But Mexico’s cities are full. Jobs are poor-paying and hard to find. Far from absorbing Mexico’s surplus rural population, the cities will be sending people north. Considering migration from the countryside and from the cities, tens of millions of Mexicans will be driven by economic pressures to seek work in the United States over the next 30 years.

Many immigrants will be coming whether we have NAFTA or not. But if Meissner’s study is correct, ratification of NAFTA means up to 2 million extra immigrants between now and 2013. This is a pro-NAFTA estimate. Anti-NAFTA experts think the total could be higher.

This will be bad news for Mexicans as well as Americans. The flood of dispossessed farmers from the countryside will keep wages low and unemployment high in Mexico’s cities despite new investments under NAFTA. The Mexican people, their hopes of better living conditions once again disappointed, will not thank President Carlos Salinas de Gortari for this treaty. Despite heavy propaganda from Mexico’s government-controlled press, polls show that support for NAFTA is slipping in Mexico.

But if NAFTA won’t control immigration, what can we do? Fortunately, there are alternative approaches to Mexican agriculture that could reduce immigration. Instead of sweeping Mexican farmers off the land, United States needs to be strengthening family farming in Mexico.

The United States needs an agreement with Mexico that combines the job-creating features of NAFTA with an anti-immigration farm program. If farm incomes rise in Mexico, fewer displaced Mexican farmers will flood the labor markets in Mexico’s and California’s cities. Thismeans Mexican wages would rise with free trade, and richer Mexican workers could buy more U.S. goods.

Over time, Mexican agriculture will modernize; our policy should not be to prevent this, but to ensure it is a gradual process. We don’t want farmers and their families leaving the land faster than we can create new jobs for them in Mexico’s industrial and urban economy.

Even in the midst of the current controversy, the outlines of a constructive U.S.-Mexican deal are clear. Both countries need for Mexican incomes to rise. Richer Mexican workers will be happier workers, and they will be able to afford more consumer goods from the United States. Rising wages in Mexico will also reduce the loss of jobs in the United States as trade opens up, and will help keep immigration under control.

This means both countries need to see increased investment in Mexican industry combined with support payments and rural-evelopment initiatives to slow the flood of new migrants from the countryside. NAFTA only tackles the investment side of the equation; it needs to be complemented by agricultural policies that ease the transition for Mexico’s family farms.

A workable NAFTA--NAFTA-plus--would also allow Mexico’s inefficient industries more time to adjust to U.S. and Canadian competition. Otherwise, jobs lost in protected Mexican consumer-products industries will offset some of NAFTA’s job gains in Mexico, and the result will be lower wages and higher immigration.

For the United States, this would alter the political dynamics of NAFTA. Corn farmers and certain exporters who now vociferously support the agreement would lose interest. On the other hand, public opinion in states like California and among anti-NAFTA groups like labor would shift significantly in favor.The net result would be positive; a renegotiated NAFTA-plus could pass Congress more easily.

In Mexico, some form of NAFTA-plus would be far more popular than the current plan. It would offer a synthesis of the Salinas policy of economic reform with the interests of Mexico’s peasants.

Pessimists see NAFTA’s troubles as a sign of growing protectionism and of international retreat by the United States. It doesn’t have to be this way. If Congress blocks the current NAFTA agreement, negotiators from Mexico, Canada and the United States could quickly hammer out a NAFTA-plus program that will be more popular, more workable and that, in the long run, will result in freer trade and less immigration than the current NAFTA proposal can offer.