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Failed Trade Policy and Immigration: Cause and Effect

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Immigration policy remains a significant focus of Congress. For decades, some U.S. politicians have focused on closing the U.S.-Mexico border to try to stop the northward flow of migrant workers. But little focus has been given to the “supply side” of a surge in immigration into the United States by people from Latin America: U.S. trade policies that have caused massive displacement of small farmers in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Indeed, many policymakers most focused on “closing” the U.S. border were the very same ones who supported U.S. trade policies that have caused the economic crises that destroyed livelihoods and devastated communities throughout Latin America – creating powerful incentives for people desperate for new livelihoods to migrate in the first place.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was negotiated by the George H.W. Bush administration between the United States, Mexico, and Canada and passed by the Bill Clinton administration. More than two decades of NAFTA have devastated Mexico’s rural economy, eroded economic opportunities for decent manufacturing jobs and destroyed many small and medium-sized businesses in Mexico. NAFTA, which benefited only the narrow corporate special interests who designed and pushed it, generated enormous pressures for workingage Mexicans to attempt the dangerous journey to the United States. In NAFTA’s first seven years, Mexican immigration to the United States more than doubled, surging 108 percent.

The George W. Bush administration then negotiated an expansion of the failed NAFTA model to six Central American nations via the controversial Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). CAFTA proponents promised that the deal would reduce gang and drug-related violence in Central America, diminishing the flow of immigrants from the region to the United States. But the opposite has happened – gang and drug-related violence in Central America has reached record highs and immigration from the region has surged, as dramatically demonstrated by the waves of unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the U.S. southern border. Economic instability – exacerbated by CAFTA – has fed the region’s increase in violence and forced migration. Under CAFTA, family farmers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have been displaced, while the economies have become dependent on short-lived apparel assembly jobs – many of which have already vanished.