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What Has NAFTA Done In Its Twenty Years?

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is now two decades old.

Photo by Jill Replogle

Above: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is now two decades old.

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 8, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement into law.

At the time, it was an unprecedented idea: Eliminating nearly all tariffs and trade barriers between two developed countries, Canada and the U.S., and another, Mexico, that was struggling with very high levels of poverty and weak infrastructure.

As we’ve reported, trade between the U.S and Mexico has quintupled since NAFTA took effect, on Jan. 1, 1994. And yet lines to cross the border are longer than ever, thanks to concerns over terrorism, drugs and illegal immigration, and insufficient border infrastructure.

NAFTA’s failure to address the movement of people across borders largely is responsible, some say, for mass illegal immigration to the U.S., one of the most contentious national issues of our time. And despite a major attempt by the U.S. Senate and Obama administration to address the problem this year, compromise seems far away.

On NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, many are lauding its accomplishments in boosting commerce and setting a template for free trade around the world.

Trade among the three countries has reached more than $1 trillion a year. And jobs in manufacturing and auxiliary industries have helped lift millions of Mexicans out of poverty.

Still almost half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty. And entire villages are terrorized into silence and inactivity by drug lords.

While Mexico’s economy shows healthy growth, returning migrants — either deported or moving back on their own, often struggle to find jobs. Many focus all their efforts on getting back to the U.S.

In a recent op-ed, the Wall Street Journal calls for “NAFTA 2.0,” saying North America has lost competitiveness and needs a new boost.

As the U.S. moves through negotiations on new trade pacts, notably the Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA’s legacy surely will play a role.

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