Immigration From Mexico Grew Under NAFTA Trade Deal

An activist paints the U.S.-Mexico border wall between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and New Mexico as a symbol of protest against President Donald Trump's new immigration reform, on February 26. Jose Luis Gonzalez /Reuters

President Donald Trump is no fan of NAFTA. His principle argument against the North American Free Trade Agreement—an agreement signed more than two decades ago that allows for free trade among the U.S., Canada and Mexico—has long been an economic one. It's a disaster for U.S. workers, Trump has said repeatedly, promising to pull out of the deal or at least renegotiate the terms.

"You have to understand, we have been on the wrong side of the NAFTA deal with Canada and with Mexico for many, many years, many decades," Trump said at a rally in Pennsylvania over the weekend. "We can't allow it to happen. So we are going to renegotiate. And if we can't make a fair deal for companies and our workers, we will terminate NAFTA, OK?"

Trump, who campaigned as an immigration hard-liner, has also said that immigration was part of why he wanted to renegotiate NAFTA.

"We will be starting negotiations having to do with NAFTA," Trump said in January, according to Reuters. "We are going to start renegotiating on NAFTA, on immigration and on security at the border."

But stopping illegal immigration and calling off a major trade deal with Mexico might be opposing goals.

NAFTA has long been tied by some to an uptick in unauthorized immigration into the U.S. On the 20-year anniversary of the agreement, NPR reported in 2013 that U.S. corn-growers—subsidized by the government—sent so much of their product to Mexico that it cost Mexican farmers jobs, which led some of them to make their way to the U.S. to find work.

It was originally expected that NAFTA would slow illegal immigration, as the Mexican economy picked up. However, The New York Times wrote in 2007 (around the time the number of unauthorized immigrants living into the U.S. peaked) that the Mexican government hadn't invested in infrastructure improvements, leading many Mexican workers to seek work in a new country.

"The main thing that would have stemmed the flow of people across the border was a rapid increase in wages in Mexico," Dani Rodrik, an economist and trade specialist at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said at the time. "And that certainly has not happened."

Then the U.S. economy went into crisis mode in 2007 and 2008. The number of undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the U.S. at the time was 6.9 million. It has since fallen by more than 1 million, according to the Pew Research Center.

And while Central American illegal immigration has increased, Pew Research found last year that from 2009 onward, more Mexican nationals left the U.S. for their home country than came into the U.S. Apprehensions at the southwest border of the U.S., a common barometer for total border crossings, hit their highest mark in 2000, reaching some 1.64 million, but declined in the past eight years or so and stood at just more than 408,000 last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.

The Washington Post editorial board wrote in 2012 that NAFTA initially caused an uptick in Mexican workers making their way to the U.S., but "over time, NAFTA helped make Mexico more efficient and, hence, wealthier."

"Migration plummeted after 2005 because of reduced U.S. demand for labor and the slowing of Mexican population growth—but also because NAFTA started to pay off in the form of dynamic new export industries in Mexico such as automobile manufacturing," the Post wrote.

So while NAFTA may have caused an uptick it unauthorized immigration it might have also helped slow it by improving the Mexican economy. Should Trump pull out of the agreement it could disrupt that progress.

"Killing NAFTA would hurt the Mexican economy, which is heavily dependent on exports to the U.S. That would prompt jobless Mexicans to resume the tradition of going north," wrote Quartz this month.