Column: The radically old-fashioned solution for America’s immigration crisis

Editor’s Note: Tonight’s Making Sen$e broadcast story is about Utica, New York, the Rust Belt city, which bills itself as “the town that loves refugees” and has rebounded economically by welcoming immigrants, many of them Muslim.

But Utica is the proverbial exception that proves the rule: immigration has become a hot button topic across America. So what do we do about the immigration in the U.S.? How does immigration play into the negotiation of NAFTA, for example? What do we do about the millions of illegal immigrants already here?

Hannah Carrese, a young scholar who has worked with refugees, most recently in Mexico, has a radical solution to many of these problems — returning America to a policy of the not-so-distant past: the bracero program.

— Paul Solman, Economics Correspondent

Watch Making Sen$e’s broadcast story on Utica, New York, “the town that loves refugees,” above.

America and Europe have spent the past year eulogizing free trade agreements. Politicians, and in some cases voters, have become convinced that free trade means free migration, that free movement of goods inevitably leads to free movement of people.

In the U.K., Brexit voters knew that to remain part of the EU’s single market would be to accept the EU’s permissive border policies. In the U.S., President Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and has muddled his way to a similar idea as he pledges to renegotiate NAFTA: the U.S. does not want Mexico’s hombres, and the U.S. does not want Mexico’s goods.

This linking of trade and migration makes sense in the European Union, where the “four freedoms” central to the Union’s founding treaties enshrine free movement of goods and free movement of people.

But the link is less clear in the United States. Our country’s preeminent free trade agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is predicated on the idea that free trade discourages migration — that if countries open their borders to goods, they won’t have to worry about closing them to people.

NAFTA negotiators in the U.S. and Mexico agreed on this point as they crafted the treaty. In 1992, for example, Mexican President Carlos Salinas made clear his country’s aim in joining a North American free trade bloc: “we want,” he said, “to export goods, not people.” During a 1993 signing ceremony for NAFTA, former U.S. President Gerald Ford said much the same: “Defeat NAFTA and there will be a tremendous flow of Mexicans to the United States wanting jobs in the United States. We don’t want that. We want Mexicans to stay in Mexico so they can work in their home country.”

Economists provided what seemed a common sense justification for this decoupling of free trade and free migration. If governments and markets and citizens behaved as expected under NAFTA, new factories and farms would spring up in Mexico, opening up new jobs. In this more competitive labor market, and in Mexico’s inevitably growing economy, wages would rise. Of course, Mexicans who had work and were paid well for doing this work would have no incentive to migrate north. Some scholars suggested that Mexican migration to the U.S. would surge as both economies adjusted to new trade patterns. They were sure, however, that this “migration hump” would at its worst reach an apex by the mid-1990s. It would decline thereafter.

But this vision of migration discouraged by free trade proved a mirage. During the 1990s, the population of Mexican nationals living in the U.S. more than doubled, to 9 million people. Migration, legal and illegal, from Mexico to the U.S. kept crescendoing through 2008.

The reasons are clear. One real world effect of NAFTA was that foreign companies built factories primarily in northern Mexico, near the U.S. border. This left the rest of the country bereft of the jobs the treaty, and economists, promised. Another effect: imports like Kansas corn, cheap because the U.S. government subsidized them, inundated Mexico. Millions of farmers of this staple Mexican crop were pushed out of the market, out of their livelihood and often out of their homes. Plans for these sometime corn farmers to become strawberry farmers — occupying a new niche in a new economy — never materialized. Nor did the ambitious infrastructure and development programs promised by Mexico’s government as a method for keeping Mexicans in Mexico.

If NAFTA had not been ratified, would President Ford have proved prophetic? Would the flow of migrants north have been even more tremendous? Perhaps, although we are ill-equipped to tackle this “what if.” But 23 years into NAFTA, we can be sure of this: Presidents Salinas and Ford, and their contemporaries, were premature in pronouncing the decoupling of trade and migration.

It should, then, be no surprise that the “new world order” vaunted by George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the American presidents who negotiated NAFTA, seems also to be failing. NAFTA was, after all, fundamental to Bush and Clinton’s idea of an American-led liberal system of peaceful commerce and international law. Echoing presidential rhetoric, Henry Kissinger wrote in the summer of 1993 that “NAFTA will represent the most creative step toward a new world order by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War, and the first step toward an even larger vision of a free-trade zone for the entire Western Hemisphere.” NAFTA was the contract pledging that the U.S. would construct a new international order after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Donald Trump — elected president 28 years to the day after the wall was ruptured — will now renegotiate NAFTA in pursuit of another “new world order.” Unlike Presidents Bush and Clinton, who worked to level walls, President Trump lauds them. And once again, questions of trade seem inseparable from those of migration. The manifestation of the Bush/Clinton vision was the successful — although tardy — U.S. intervention to quell a refugee crisis in Bosnia. The impetus for Trump’s vision is in large part a global population of displaced people that has now crested 65 million. These migrants and asylum-seekers are, rightly or wrongly, scaring citizens from Moscow, Russia to Moscow, Idaho.

Therefore, as we renegotiate NAFTA, U.S. politicians and citizens must ask: Is Trump — and are Brexit voters — right? Must we restrict trade in order to restrict migration? How much should we aim to restrict either?

In the U.K., the hope that migration and trade can be decoupled persists, tenaciously if tenuously. Brexit negotiators will work for a deal that allows Britain to restrict immigration while retaining access to the EU’s free trade zone. It is not at all clear they will succeed.

But North Americans should develop a healthier, and a more realistic, answer to these questions. We should recognize the link between trade and migration and craft a new NAFTA, one guided not by the Bush/Clinton new world order but by an older world order, built on this continent during the 1940s: the bracero program.

In need of labor during World War II, U.S. officials reversed a decade of policy hostile to Mexican guest workers and established what became known as the bracero (or manual laborer) program. Mexican migrants worked during the growing season on sugar beet, lettuce, asparagus, grape farms in the U.S. During the winter, they returned home to build houses, celebrate weddings or bury family members. They worked in the United States and lived in Mexico.

By Oregon State University [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Oregon State University, via Wikimedia Commons

Programs like this may sound scary to some, conjuring the semi-slavery of foreign workers in oil-rich states. But is economic migration just for the rich — those who can afford visas and immigration lawyers, who can make investments and buy expensive houses to earn legal passage to a new country?

In the U.S., braceros were promised a regulated economy: a minimum wage, decent living conditions, food, housing. Under the H2A visa program, the much smaller modern iteration of the bracero program, guest workers are paid wages higher than the state minimum in an effort to ensure that they aren’t “cheap labor,” taking jobs from Americans. Companies must apply for permits to hire workers, to show both that the workers are needed and that they will be cared for in the U.S.

Mexican officials have long been amenable to this kind of program. Presidents George Bush and Vicente Fox discussed establishing a bracero-like initiative before 9/11. In 2016, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. — now Mexico’s Subsecretary for North America, working to set policy on NAFTA — said of the end of bracero: “the circular migration of the past was broken, and that’s when the problems began … we need to re-establish the movement.”

In fact, Mexico has instituted a guest worker program for citizens of Belize and Guatemala at its own southern border. This program is a component of Mexico’s Southern Border Plan, a 2014 border enforcement law supported by $70 million from the Obama administration. President Trump and Congress should view a new guest worker program in the U.S. as implying the same compromise envisioned in Mexico’s Southern Border Plan: more leeway for legal migration coupled with better enforcement of laws against illegal migration. (Of course, the program should also avoid some of its previous faults. Ten percent of braceros’ salaries were deducted and given to the Mexican government to pass on to workers, but many laborers never received the pay and fought for years for proper compensation. The braceros were eventually paid under a 2008 settlement.)

President Trump should not expect most Mexicans now living without documents in the U.S. to “self-deport” — to return south to Mexico voluntarily. At the end of 2014, 78 percent of the 5.5 million undocumented Mexicans had lived in the U.S. for 10 or more years. These migrants who have made the U.S. their home over a decade or more are not the kind of migrants who typically return to Mexico. The Mexican government reported that from 2009 to 2014, migrants returning to Mexico had lived in the U.S. for an average of just over a year.

This means that we should structure a new guest worker program so that Mexicans living without documents in the U.S. are immediately eligible. To do this would be to recognize an informal migration cycle that already exists in most U.S.-Mexico border towns. Many Mexican nationals living along the border pass frequently between the United States and Mexico. Good “border shoppers” know what to buy in Mexico and in the U.S. In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, for example, milk, eggs and doctor’s appointments are cheaper than in U.S. And Mexicans seek luxury goods north of the border: when a Coach outlet opened in El Paso recently, it was flooded by Chihuahuans who came to buy handbags.

Comprehensive immigration reform has become a chimera in U.S. politics — exotic and interesting, but impossible. This is in part because there seems no way to begin. Do we start with border enforcement? With amnesty? With deportations? With a work program?

None of these front doors to changing U.S. immigration policy have worked. We should acknowledge the link between trade and migration and try a side door — a NAFTA built around a U.S.-Mexico guest worker program.

The slogan for this new NAFTA, founded in old North American policies, is simple: rather than free trade, free movement — fair trade, fair movement.