NAFTA’s failure could create an immigration crisis in the United States

Source: Farm Futures

Source: Farm Futures

Although the controversy surrounding the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) typically revolves around jobs and trade, NAFTA impacts more than just trade relations; it also has a major influence on immigration patterns in the United States. President Trump threatened to include immigration control as part of NAFTA re-negotiations when he recently tweeted “[t]hey must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA.”[1] Although Trump’s statements on NAFTA and immigration are making headlines, relying on Mexico to help curb immigration flow is nothing new. Mexico has been assisting the United States’ for decades and assistance only increased after NAFTA entered into force in 1994. In the past, the U.S. often seemed to have the upper hand in its immigration agreements with Mexico, however, with the recent developments over NAFTA, this may be changing.

Though its effectiveness is hotly debated, NAFTA did improve the economies of the United States, Canada, and Mexico; Mexico’s economy was particularly boosted.[2] From this arose a relationship of mutual reliance on the part of both Mexico and the United States. Mexico’s economic reliance on the United States put it in a position where it is often expected to alter its immigration laws and border policies at the request of the United States. In turn, as the United States has continued to ask for Mexico’s cooperation; it has become increasingly reliant on Mexico to assist in reducing the number of migrants coming to the United States’ southern border. In particular, the recent mass migration of Central American migrants exemplifies how the United States’ role as the dominant economic power in the region impacts Mexico’s immigration laws and policies.

Past Mexico – United States relations

The passage of NAFTA liberalized Mexico’s trade with the United States and Canada, and provided a significant boost to its economy.[3] In addition to opening its borders to trade, Mexico began cooperating with the United States more on border security.[4] For example, in 1997, in exchange for economic aid, Mexico worked with the United States to warn migrants of the dangers of smuggling and border crossing in Operation Gatekeeper III.[5] In 2007, another joint operation, La Merída, focused efforts on drug trafficking rather than on human smuggling.[6]

In 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the United States’ southern border surged, the majority of whom were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[7] Fleeing extreme poverty or gang violence, the number of unaccompanied minors increased by 77% with 38,759 arrivals in 2013 compared to 68,541 in 2014.[8] For families, the number surged 361%, with 14,855 apprehended in 2013 to 68,445 in 2014.[9] For the most part, those arriving were fleeing from extreme poverty or gang violence.[10] President Barack Obama described the event as a humanitarian crisis.[11]

In response to this crisis, President Obama negotiated a deal with the Mexican government to help strengthen its border in an attempt to prevent migrants from reaching the United States. The result was the implementation of Programa Fontera Sur (Southern Border Program), which is in part financed by the United States.[12] Prior to the program’s implementation, security was uneven along Mexico’s southern border.[13] Along some parts of the border there was a high tolerance for those crossing into Mexico, both temporary visitors, but also for those passing through on their way to the United States; other sections, however, were significantly more secure.[14] With the implementation of Programa Frontera Sur, Mexico’s southern border security radically changed. Mexico became an immigration “enforcer” for the United States, stepping up detentions and deportations significantly.[15] For example, Mexico increased its deportation of migrants by 35% from 2013 to 2014.[16] This included 18,169 children in 2014, a 117% increase from the number of children deported in 2013.[17] Meanwhile, the number of apprehensions and deportations at the United States’ border substantially decreased.[18]

The program is unpopular in Mexico and has been condemned internationally. Mexican scholar and activist Sergio Aguayo, told NPR that “We are now the servants of the U.S. in this role.”[19] Mexico’s significant increase in deportations is also criticized as being hypocritical.[20] Further, the program has also been criticized for human rights abuses, as well as the criminalization of migrants.[21]

Outsourcing border control is not uncommon and developed countries are increasingly relying on less developed, transit states for border control.[22] However, the relationship between the United States and Mexico is distrustful, and should not be equated to similar a structure within the European Union, which has moved beyond using merely economic interests.[23]

Power dynamics and the liberal paradox

But why is Mexico helping the United States given the controversy and criticism? The answer is multifaceted. First, the United States has been the dominant power in the region, if not the world, for years.[24] As such, it typically enjoys a fairly high level of power over other states, as is the case with Mexico. Part of the United States’ strength is its stability, predictability, and involvement in multilateral agreements.[25] The United States’ stability and reliability as the dominant power, combined with the economic growth that Mexico enjoyed under NAFTA meant that it was in Mexico’s best interest to the United States “dirty work.”[26]

Further, Mexico’s economic reliance on its more powerful neighbor makes Mexico more likely to cooperate, even when it is not in full agreement. Of particular importance is the improvement in Mexico’s economy due to NAFTA as well as Mexico’s heavy reliance on remittances. Nearly 12 million Mexican immigrants were living in the United States in 2014.[27] That year, remittances from the United States brought in 24 billion USD, 2% percent of Mexico’s GDP.[28] James Hollifield points out that developing states are reluctant to “provoke a conflict with a receiving state . . . for fear of losing remittances.”[29] Not cooperating with the United States could risk not only Mexico’s economic ties with the United States, but also the ability of Mexico’s citizens to stay in the United States and send back remittances.

This economic reliance requires that Mexico cooperate due to the existence of a “liberal paradox” within the United States.  Hollifield describes the liberal paradox: “the economic logic of liberalism is one of openness, but the political and legal logic is one of closure.”[30] In part, this is because migration poses a risk to a state’s sovereignty.[31] Thus, a migration state, caught in this liberal paradox, is one that opens or closes its borders for the benefit of the state, rather than to benefit the migrant.[32]

This fear over loss of sovereignty was readily apparent during the 2014 migrant crisis, and continues to exist today. The rhetoric since 2014 has been largely anti-immigrant with fears that migrants will accompany job loss or an increase in crime.[33] Therefore, when the number of migrants arriving overwhelmed the United States border, the US looked to Mexico and Mexico was in little position to object.

United States – Mexico Relations Today

The ability of the United States to rely on Mexico for its border security needs may be changing. The election of President Trump has called into question the predictability of the United States. As President Trump has implied on multiple occasions, Mexico can no longer definitively rely on the United States to uphold NAFTA.[34] Additionally, the new administration, rather than offering economic aid to Mexico for southern border security, has called for Mexico to pay for a wall to be built along the United States – Mexico border.[35] Unsurprisingly, Mexico objected to this.[36] The United States has also increased the deportation of immigrants living in the interior of the country, which will likely affect the amount of remittances sent back to Mexico.[37]

This is a sign that the United States may be losing influence and control over the region. Although President Trump has threatened to make NAFTA contingent on Mexico’s immigration enforcement,[38] the United States likely needs NAFTA to remain dominant. Without the stability, predictability, and participation in multilateral agreements such as NAFTA, its less likely the United States can insist that Mexico continue to protect its southern border for the United States. Without the assurance of an economic benefit, Mexico is rethinking its interest in continuing to cooperate with the United States on border security and has begun using migration as a tool.[39] As Mexico’s economic minister stated, without NAFTA “[t]here would be no incentive to continue collaborating on important issues for North American security such as migration issues.”[40]

For now, NAFTA and Mexico’s border security program remain in place. NAFTA may be re-negotiated, which would give the United States the chance to once again solidify its place as the region. However, the continual shifts in the United States’ support for NATO, NAFTA, and the Worth Trade Organization, as well as the generally decreasing stability and predictability of the current administration, demonstrates that the United States can no longer be counted on as the dominant power. One part of ensuring stability is the ability to properly regulate migration.[41] That is, the United States’ stability relies in part on its ability to regulate migration. For Mexico, that means that a somewhat unstable United States is in greater need of regulating migration, which is clear based on President Trump’s call to include immigration in NAFTA. This gives Mexico an opportunity to impact United States’ policy through the creation of a migration state, where it opens or closes its borders based on the how Mexico will benefit from a decrease in power of the United States.

Alison Sheets is a Staff Editor with the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, and a 1L at the Sturm College of Law.


[1] Trump Says May Tie Mexican Immigration Control to NAFTA, Reuters (last visited April 23, 2018),

[2] Lorenzo Caliendo and Fernando Parro, Estimates of the Trade and Welfare Effects of NAFTA, 1 The Review of Economic Studies 3 (2015).

[3] Id.

[4] Ann Kimball, The Transit State: A Comparative Analysis of Mexican and Moroccan Immigration Policies 12 (Univ. of San Diego Ctr. for Iberian and Latin American Studies and Ctr. for Comparative Immigration Studies Working Paper No. 150, 2007),

[5] The Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in North America and Europe 62 (Peter Andreas and Timothy Synder, eds., 2000).

[6] Raquel Aldana, Won Kidane, Beth Lyon, and Karla McKanders, Global Issues in Migration Law 103 (2013).

[7]  U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children FY 2014 (2015).

[8]  Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Tom Dart, Child migrants at Texas border: an immigration crisis that’s hardly new, The Guardian (July 9, 2014),

[11] Id.

[12] Aaron Korthuis, Outsourcing Refoulement: The United States and the Central American Refugee Crisis, Yale Journal of International Law (2016).

[13] Mexico’s Other Border Security, Migration, and the Humanitarian Crisis at the Line with Central America, The Washington Office on Latin America (2014).

[14] Id.

[15] Border Statistics Update: Mexico’s Increased Enforcement Matches U.S. Border Efforts, The Washington Office on Latin America (May 20, 2015),

[16] Clay Boggs, Mexico’s Southern Border Plan: More Deportations and Widespread Human Rights Violations, The Washington Office on Latin America (Mar. 19, 2015).

[17] Id.

[18] Carrie Kahn, Mexican Crackdown Slows Central American Immigration To U.S., NPR (Sept. 12, 2014),

[19] Id.

[20] John Holman, Mexico’s ‘invisible wall’, a Migrant Double Standard, Aljazeera (Feb. 16, 2107),

[21] Boggs, supra note 16.

[22] The Wall Around the West: State Borders and Immigration Controls in North America and Europe 63 (Peter Andreas and Timothy Synder, eds. 2000).

[23] Id.

[24] G. John Ikenberry, Getting hegemony right, The National Interest 18 (2001).

[25] Id. at 20-21.

[26] Kahn, supra note 19.

[27]Jie Zong and Jeanna Batalova, Jeanna, Mexican Immigrants in the United States, Migration Policy Institute (Mar. 17, 2016),

[28] Id.

[29] James F. Hollifield, The Emerging Migration State, 38 The International Migration

Review 885, 893 (2004).

[30] Id. at 887.

[31] Id.

[32] See Id. at 893.

[33] Emily Stewart, Trump campaign ad says Democrats are “complicit” in murders committed by undocumented immigrants, Vox (Jan. 21, 2018),

[34] Jessica Trisko Darden, A NAFTA renegotiation may have some unexpected consequences on US immigration and border security, Business Insider (May 5, 2017),

[35] Donald Trump’s Mexico wall: Who is going to pay for it?, BBC News (Feb. 6, 2017),

[36] Mexican opposition candidates slam Trump wall ahead of campaign, Reuters (Feb. 18, 2018),

[37] Miriam Valverde, Have deportations increased under Donald Trump? Here’s what the data shows, Politifact (Dec. 19, 2017),

[38] Trump Says May Tie Mexican Immigration Control to NAFTA, Reuters (last visited April 23, 2018),

[39] Darden, supra note 35.

[40] Julian Borger and David Argen, Mexico will not accept Trump’s immigration plans, says foreign minister, The Guardian (Feb. 22, 2017),

[41] Hollifield, supra note 30 at 903.

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