Complicating the Debate: International Trade and Immigration in NAFTA Renegotiation

Written by: Ashley Levi

The North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA, has been the subject of much discussion beginning with the 2018 presidential race and continuing well into President Trump’s first year in office. First created to develop clear guidelines for intracontinental trade with the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the agreement has prompted a debate about a country’s rights to practice protectionism, create tariffs, and support their economy. 

The trade deal has been subject to harsh criticism from President Trump in particular who claimed in a September debate that “NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country.” His aversion to the deal stems from his concern that it contradicts his self-titled “America first” platform, both in terms of economic issues and immigration policy. There have been calls for a renegotiation from both the U.S. and Mexico, which led to the current redrafting process that has been ongoing since the summer of 2017.

As negotiations, which entered into their eighth round on April 13th, have continued to move forward, President Trump has complicated the NAFTA debated by advancing new trade policies. The policies in question are new steel tariffs targeting China, another country President Trump feels threatens American jobs and industry. Although Canada and Mexico are currently exempted from the tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum, this exclusion will expire and be up for reevaluation on May 1st. These tariffs have raised concerns from economists in all three countries involved in NAFTA because of its implications regarding the aggressive protectionist stance that has accompanied the current administration. The calls for a resolution to the deal are growing as the May 1st deadline approaches and as Canada and Mexico ask to continue being excluding from the large tariffs.

This tension is heightened by a call from Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative, who wants the deal to be finalized before the current U.S. Congress adjourns in November. With the many logistics that follow the renegotiation and finalization of NAFTA, experts say that these proposed deadlines are logistically impossible to make. 

Nevertheless, an early completion date is also being pushed by Mexican politicians, who fear that their upcoming presidential elections in July might also interfere with the NAFTA renegotiation process. Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is currently the frontrunner and, considering his political opinions, will only complicate the drafting process if he ends up winning. Lopez is opposed to President Trump and his border wall propositions, and similar to the American President, he dislikes NAFTA. 

The border wall, and the topic of immigration generally, is further complicating U.S.-Mexico relations. President Trump has proposed the idea of building a wall to separate and guard the U.S.-Mexico border, payed for by the Mexican government. Following this, he has said the wall and it’s payment would be included in the NAFTA draft. Acting upon concerns that U.S. immigration laws are too lenient and unsafe, Trump has chosen to use NAFTA as leverage and collateral to argue and push for stricter immigration. 

NAFTA renegotiations have become a vehicle for governments to push agendas that are both dependent and independent of the objectives of NAFTA. As the eighth round of negotiations commence at the Summit of the Americas in Peru, the White House has expressed that it hopes the leaders of Mexico and Canada announce a new framework for the deal. For the United States, the issue of international trade and immigration are working to complicate the negotiation process.