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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

Mexico: Migrants: NAFTA

Before September 11, 2001, there was an expectation in the Mexican government that the US and Mexico would soon reach an agreement on legalizing Mexican workers in the US. The US government switched its focus from Mexico to the war on terrorism, and in January 2003, Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda resigned, saying he was frustrated by his inability "to achieve faster and more concrete results in implementing new ideas about migration" with the US, whose "immigration policies have failed to stem illegal immigration from Mexico and, in exchange, have fostered a dangerous and sometimes lethal black market for human beings."

In response to Mexican President Vicente Fox's assertion that it is time for the US and Mexico to reach "an integral agreement" on legalization, President Bush said the US was working on plans for "creative new policies so that immigration is legal, orderly and safe." He continued: "The long-term answer for the migration issue is to work in a way that encourages commerce on both sides of the border so people can find jobs here in Mexico, for starters. That's the long-term solution…[the US supports efforts] to develop industry together in the midst of Mexico, in the south of Mexico, so that people are more likely to find work at home."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the Mexico-US migration discussions would start with less controversial issues, such as temporary work visas and an expanded guest-worker program, but not legalization. In November 2002, the new US ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza Jr said the US and Mexico should negotiate a guest worker program that is market-driven, tied to US labor needs and does not "displace people who are already in the work force."

The rising US unemployment rate may make it more difficult to argue that the US "needs" Mexican workers to grow. The US unemployment rate was six percent in December 2002, which means that, in 2001-02, the US lost 1.6 million net jobs, the majority in the high-tech and manufacturing sectors.

Nafta. On January 1, 2003, there was free trade between Mexico and the US in most farm commodities- only corn, dairy products and sugar remain protected until January 1, 2008. Mexican activists, pressing the Mexican government to renegotiate Nafta, say that Mexican farms are "vast parking lots for the unemployed," and that many Mexican farmers will head to the US in 2003 if farm prices fall as imports from the US rise. About 70 percent of Mexican farms have less than five hectares (12 acres); large farms, often in northern Mexico, hire migrant workers for $2 to $5 a day.

The Mexican government estimated that farm employment was 9.8 million in 1990, and 8.6 million in 2000. Farm employment was 21 percent of total employment, but farm sales were only 4.4 percent of GDP- Mexican farmers produce only 14 percent as much food and fiber as US farmers.

The Mexican government says that it wants to create nonfarm jobs in rural areas, allowing it to reduce the $8.7 billion a year it spends on direct and indirect farm subsidies (Mexico's Education Department spends about $10.4 billion a year). The Mexican government complains that, since Nafta went into effect January 1, 1994, the US has increased farm subsidies by 300 percent.

Mexican farm exports to the United States have nearly doubled, from $2.7 billion in 1993 to $5.2 billion in 2001. US farm exports to Mexico have gone from $3.6 billion in 1993 to $7.4 billion in 2001. US imports of fresh tomatoes rose in the 1990s, to 730,000 tons in 2000, including 81 percent from Mexico. Mexican tomatoes imported during the winter months must meet the same size and grade standards that apply to tomatoes produced in Florida under a federal marketing order. Mexican tomatoes from Sinaloa must be sold for at least $5.27 a 25-pound box, or about 21 cents a pound, between November and June.

The US runs a farm trade surplus. Much of the increase in US exports to Mexico reflects changes in Mexican farm policies in the early 1990s, when Mexico ended a ban on feeding corn to livestock and reduced price supports for corn. About 30 percent of US farm exports went to Canada and Mexico in 2001, and they were the source of almost 40 percent of US farm imports.

Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, "Mexican Farmers Cry Foul Over NAFTA's Effect on Chicken Tariff," Washington Post, December 1, 2002. Sara Silver, "Mexico to campaign for rights of migrant workers," Financial Times, November 6, 2002.

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