The TV image shows a hole in one of the high fences along the U.S.-Mexico border as the voice-over declares that the North American Free-Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, “took the first real step in stopping illegal immigration.”
The ad, sponsored by USA-NAFTA, a coalition of more than 2,700 companies, is an opening salvo in one of the most contentious debates likely to appear in or out of Congress this fall: Should lawmakers approve the treaty linking Canada, Mexico and the United States in the world's largest free-trade area? More ads on both sides of the debate are sure to follow as advocates try to sway public opinion.
Since the addition this summer of two side agreements to the agreement, which was largely put together by the Bush administration, President Clinton has enthusiastically supported it. The two side deals would hold Mexico to high environmental standards and try to minimize the exodus of American factories and jobs to low-wage Mexico. Supporters says the treaty's removal of most tariffs and other barriers to trade within North America will help the United States compete with Europe and Japan in the vast marketplace.
But labor leaders and Texas billionaire Ross Perot say U.S. wages and jobs won't be protected and have launched an attack on the treaty. If it gains congressional approval, NAFTA is scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 1994.
For many Americans, NAFTA remains a mystery. In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 36 percent of the respondents said they opposed the treaty, and only 25 percent were for it; 34 percent said they didn't know enough about it to express an opinion.#
NAFTA's impact on immigration is among the areas of uncertainty. Even many experts in the field say they know too little about free trade's effect on migration to hazard a guess. Not surprisingly, the issue appears to be far more complex than the TV ad would suggest.
On the face of it, by making it easier for people to cross the border, NAFTA could facilitate illegal immigration from Mexico, the wellspring of undocumented aliens in the United States. California Gov. Pete Wilson takes this view and proposes linking NAFTA's approval to Mexico's willingness to help stop illegal immigration to the United States.
Alan C. Nelson, a consultant to the anti-immigration Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) who served as commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Reagan administration, goes a step further. “[T]he U.S. should require a jointly shared border-crossing fee and use the money to improve immigration inspections and enforcement and to return illegal migrants to their homes in Mexico, not just over the border,” he writes. Moreover, he says, the Bush administration “buried its head in the sand on the issue of linking immigration reform to NAFTA.”## He calls on the Clinton administration to make a separate side agreement on immigration.
NAFTA supporters counter that by promoting trade and economic development south of the border, the treaty would encourage Mexicans to stay home and thus would eventually reduce illegal immigration. Indeed, warns Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., failure to enact the treaty could well lead to a collapse of Mexico's fragile economy, causing even more illegal immigration. “With half the population of Mexico under the age of 19, a desperate Mexican economy will produce millions of illegal immigrants flooding into America,” he writes. “It is better to have Mexicans working legally in a growing Mexico than taking jobs from our poorest citizens and burdening our social service system in the U.S.”*
According to one of the few academic studies of the issue, both sides may have a point. University of California experts Wayne A. Cornelius and Philip L. Martin predict that more immigrants, legal and illegal, initially would enter the United States if NAFTA were enacted. But over time, as free trade stimulates economic growth in Mexico, they say immigration would fall far below levels that could be expected without a treaty. The projected trend “of increased and then decreased migration yields fewer total migrants to the United States than the alternative of continuing illegal immigration without free trade,” they conclude.* *
# See Kevin Goldman, “NAFTA Friends, Foes Blitz Public With Ads,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 1993.
## Alan C. Nelson, “A Governor's Brave Stand on Illegal Aliens,” The New York Times, Aug. 23, 1993.
Bill Bradley, “NAFTA Opens More Than a Trade Door,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 16, 1993.
* Wayne A. Cornelius and Philip L. Martin, The Uncertain Connection: Free Trade and Mexico-U.S. Migration (1993), p. 33.