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Free Trade with a Human Face

By Jorge Castaneda | Project Syndicate | October 8, 2008

Coffee beans. Credit: Angela Sevin (CC).

Although many Americans believe immigration is a domestic issue that should be excluded from talks with other governments, this is not a view held in other nations—or by the U.S. government. Indeed, the United States negotiated its first immigration deal in 1907, maintained for more than two decades a controversial treaty with Mexico covering immigration, and has kept up immigration talks and deals even with Fidel Castro since the early 1960s.

For many Latin American nations, not just Mexico, immigration is the single most important issue in their relations with the United States. The Caribbean islands all have a similarly high proportion of their citizens residing in the United States and depend as much as Mexico on remittances. The same is true for much of Central America. And no part of South America is exempt from this pattern.

So almost all of Latin America is deeply affected by the current immigration climate in the United States, and would benefit greatly from the type of comprehensive immigration reform that both John McCain and Barack Obama have supported. The Bush administration's regrettable decision to build fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, raid workplaces and housing sites, detain and deport foreigners without papers, is viewed in Latin America as being hypocritical and offensive. The issue is all the more painful and disappointing since most Latin American foreign ministries know full well that these attitudes are pure politics, nothing more.

Everyone knows what viable immigration reform in the United States will entail: tightening security at the border, but also including gates in the walls currently being built; legalizing, with expeditious and sensible fines and conditions, the 15 million or so foreigners present in the United States illegally; and establishing a migrant or temporary worker program that allows a sufficient number of foreigners to satisfy the growing needs of the U.S. economy, with paths both to regular visits home and to U.S. permanent residence.

A second component is political will and timing. Bush had it right at the beginning: his willingness to negotiate an immigration agreement with Mexico at the start of his term was probably the only way to get it done. Moving quickly is probably the only way the next president can succeed on this front as well.

If immigration is to become a less heated issue, the United States must address the needs of Latin America's economies. Here, one of the key challenges facing the next U.S. administration lies in the existing and pending free-trade agreements between the United States and Latin America.

If John McCain is elected, tinkering with or overhauling NAFTA, CAFTA, and free-trade deals with Chile and Peru, as Barack Obama has proposed, will be unlikely. But, given the likelihood that Democrats will retain their majorities in the U.S. Congress, even McCain would need to modify the agreement with Colombia in order to get it passed. The pressure to include similar provisions in the other deals would then grow.

If recession drags on and Americans continue to blame trade agreements—erroneously—for growing unemployment, falling wages, and yawning inequality, opposition to these deals will grow. Instead of waiting for the pressure to mount, the next president would do well to preempt it with an ambitious agenda on free-trade reform that would benefit everyone.

In this respect, the United States could learn from the European Union. American trade agreements have been faulted for limiting themselves to trade. The response has always been: the United States is not Europe, nor is it in the business of nation-building or reconstruction. But this is exactly what it did, successfully, with the post-1945 Marshall Plan and, unsuccessfully, with Iraq and Afghanistan today.

First, clear and explicit human rights and democracy clauses should be included, along the lines of similar clauses in the Mexican and Chilean Economic Association treaties with the European Union. Second, more specific provisions on labor, the environment, gender equality, and indigenous rights are needed, as well as antitrust, regulatory, and judicial reform provisions, for reasons both of principle and political expediency.

Although there have been enormous improvements in most of these areas, there remains a huge agenda, particularly with regard to breaking up or regulating monopolies—public, private, commercial, trade union-based—that plague nearly every country in the region.

These revised agreements should include bold, enlightened provisions for infrastructure and "social-cohesion" funds, since these can make the difference between muddling through and true success. Free-trade advocates should not view Obama's demand that these deals be revisited as a mistake, but rather as an opportunity to improve and deepen them; McCain's supporters should not see the incorporation of all of the aforementioned inclusions as "European nonsense," but rather as a way to narrow the gap between the agreements' promise and their actual results.

Improving Mexican and Central American infrastructure, education, and rule of law, or improving Colombian and Peruvian drug-enforcement efforts and respect for labor laws and human rights, are all in America's interest, and free-trade agreements can help rather than harm such efforts.

If the United States and Latin America can face up to the challenges of trade and immigration together, the next U.S. president may leave a weightier mark on the hemispheric relationship than any American leader in three generations.

© 2008 Project Syndicate. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Agriculture, Business, Development, Diplomacy, Economy, Globalization, Jobs, Migration, Trade, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, United States, Venezuela, Americas, Oceania

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