March of Folly: U.S. Immigration Policy after NAFTA

By Massey, Douglas S. | The American Prospect, March-April 1998 | Go to article overview

March of Folly: U.S. Immigration Policy after NAFTA

Massey, Douglas S., The American Prospect

On January 1, 1994, Mexico joined Canada and the United States in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), creating a free trade zone stretching from the Guatemala border to the Arctic Ocean. Despite the continent-wide opening of capital, consumer, and commodity markets, however, NAFTA does not envision a parallel opening of labor markets. On the contrary, NAFTA was sold as a means of preventing labor migration from Mexico. According to former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, through NAFTA Mexico sought "to export goods and not people."

In keeping with this sentiment, migration issues were largely excluded from the final agreement, leaving each country free to pursue its own immigration policy. Indeed, the United States has sought to restrict sharply the entry of Mexican workers. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) sharply increased the border patrol's budget and imposed new sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers. IRCAs passage was followed by highly publicized border crackdowns, first in El Paso ("Operation Hold the Line") and later in San Diego ("Operation Gatekeeper"), yielding a new militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border. Congress recently extended this crackdown along the entire frontier by authorizing the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to hire 1,000 additional officers and 300 support personnel per year between 1996 and 2001, nearly doubling the border patrol. It also gave its agents broad new powers to remove undocumented aliens quickly, without judicial review.

In 1994, California's voters passed Proposition 187 by a wide margin. This initiative sought to bar undocumented migrants from public services such as schools, hospitals, and public assistance, and it attempted to enlist teachers, medical personnel, and welfare caseworkers as enforcers. These efforts went national in 1996 when Congress passed legislation that forbade noncitizen immigrants from receiving most means-tested federal and state benefits. Congress also raised the income threshold required to sponsor new immigrants and enacted harsh penalties against people who overstayed temporary visas. Even for those migrants legally entitled to become permanent resident aliens, the act imposed a fee of $1,000 for the privilege of adjusting status.

Thus the United States wants to have its cake and eat it too. On the one hand, it seeks to create a continent-wide free trade zone for goods, capital, and information. On the other hand, within this integrated North American market it wants no movement of labor. Rather, international migration is to be suppressed through police actions at the border and coercive internal sanctions.

Unfortunately this contradictory policy is backfiring. The consolidation of the North American market will promote, not preclude, emigration from Mexico. As trade relations expand, a continent-wide infrastructure of transportation and communication will facilitate circulation between the two countries, and an expanding network of interpersonal ties created through trade, tourism, education, and migration itself will lower the costs and risks of international movement--to put a U.S. job within easy reach of a growing fraction of the Mexican population. U.S. attempts to suppress the resulting migratory flows will not succeed; indeed, they will make matters worse, and in the end the United States will have the worst of all possible worlds: continued immigration accompanied by stagnant wages, declining labor standards, and a growing population of impoverished, unhealthy, and poorly educated Mexican Americans. In order to understand the reasoning behind this dire forecast, one first must understand the forces driving Mexico-U.S. migration.


Most policymakers and citizens think Mexicans head north simply because wages are low in Mexico and high in the United States. Mexicans supposedly make a cost-benefit calculation that weighs the projected expenses and risks of moving against the expected returns from living and working in the United States. …

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