Romanoff missed the boat on NAFTA immigration question

I had no intention of blindsiding U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff last Friday when I asked him to discuss the relationship between the North American Free Trade Agreement and the influx of undocumented workers from Mexico since its ratification. But if my question caught Romanoff off guard, his answer left me equally flummoxed. When, after a moment’s contemplation, Romanoff replied that he did not know there was any such relationship, I wondered if he had missed the 2008 Democratic primary.

Romanoff may choose, as others have, to minimize the importance of NAFTA to immigration, but he should be familiar with a position that has characterized progressive thought since NAFTA was passed.

Debate over NAFTA raged in industrial states like Ohio, which lost jobs to Mexico.  But as Ted Lewis editorialized in the San Diego Union Tribune in February 2008, “NAFTA’s relevance to this year’s election … is due as much to its role in accelerating undocumented migration from Mexico as to the visceral reaction swing voters in Midwestern states such as Ohio have to job losses it causes here at home.”

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pledged in their campaigns to reform NAFTA if elected. Both even threatened to pull out of the agreement if new standards were not incorporated. For Obama, “fix NAFTA” became a recurrent theme in his economic and immigration platform. Unfortunately, neither candidate was very specific about the reforms they would introduce.

Congress ratified NAFTA and it was implemented in 1994 with the understanding it would improve employment in Mexico. Increased American investment, it was argued, would raise Mexican wages and create an incentive against emigrating to the United States.

However, by the early years of the next decade, it was apparent the plan was not working. Because the Mexican government failed to meet its obligations to invest billions of dollars in transportation, education, housing and industrial infrastructure to support an industrial economy, the planned expansion of jobs in Mexico didn’t materialize. The maquiladoras (factories) that were built clustered along the border where some infrastructure was available, but few moved very deeply into Mexico.

No longer protected by tariffs, Mexican goods were driven from the market by higher-quality imported merchandise admitted under NAFTA. Meantime, China surpassed Mexico in producing goods for the American market. The number of manufacturing jobs in Mexico dropped from 4.1 million in 2000 to 3.5 million in 2004.

Devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1994 further decreased the wages of Mexican workers, compared to their American counterparts. It also deprived the government of the capital it might have used to build the infrastructure to support a manufacturing base.

Meantime, as a result of NAFTA’s elimination of tariffs on agricultural products, the price of corn in Mexico fell 70 percent between 1994 and 2001. The number of farm jobs in the same period decreased from 8.1 million in 1993 to 6.8 million in 2002.

Laura Cartsen, with the Center for International Policy, reported that cheap American food flooded Mexican markets. As U.S. agribusiness moved in, 1.1 million small farmers, and 1.4 million Mexicans dependent on the small farm sector, were driven out of work between 1993 and 2005. Wages dropped so steeply that a decade after the implementation of NAFTA, farm labor wages in Mexico were one third of what they were before the agreement.

Corn farmers displaced by cheap imports did not shift to growing alternative crops like strawberries or vegetables for the export market, as NAFTA planning called for. “Instead,” as Louis Uchitelle put it in a New York Times story in 2007, “the farmers exported themselves.”

If the notorious Arizona law pushes immigration to the foreground before the coming election, reforming NAFTA is almost certain to be at the center of the discussion. Romanoff’s dismissal of the connection between NAFTA and undocumented immigrants suggests he is not yet ready to enter that debate.

A note on my May 12 column: The Colorado Department of Natural Resources points out that 2010 OHV funds were allocated at the State Parks Board’s March meeting. At the May 7 meeting, the Parks Board voted to delay the final recommendation on the OHV grant-scoring criteria and the makeup of the OHV grant-ranking subcommittee. A spokesman for the DNR said the board received roughly an equal number of contacts from those for and those against reforming the OHV program.

Bill Grant lives in Grand Junction. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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