by Ted Robbins
December 26, 2013 4:02 AM

The North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, turns 20 next week. Hailed as a boon for regional trade, it had some undesirable effects. It hastened a trend away from small farmers, and speeded illegal immigration to the U.S.



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The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, was signed with a lot of fanfare and promise. New Years Day is NAFTA's 20th anniversary, which means that we now have a lot evidence about what the trade deal has and hasn't done. The law, meant to be a boon for regional trade, has had some undesirable effects. NAFTA hastened a trend away from small farmers, and it sped up illegal immigration to the United States, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Arizona.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: There's a saying in Mexico: Sin maiz, no hay pais: no corn, no country. Mexico is where corn originated, and it's the food staple most people depend on. It's what Antonio Pena grew on his family farm in Guanajuato in Central Mexico.

ANTONIO PENA: We work with a lot of corn.

ROBBINS: Corn to make tortillas, corn to feed to livestock, corn to trade with other farmers.

PENA: So we sell some of that to buy something else that we need, like vegetables, you know, chilies, tomatoes.

ROBBINS: The Mexican government used to subsidize corn. It kept the crop price high so small farmers could stay in business. And it kept tortilla prices low so poor people could eat. When NAFTA took effect two decades ago, the trade agreement phased out tariffs in order to lower costs and encourage investment between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The Mexican government ended its corn subsidy - maybe too quickly.

The U.S. government still subsidized highly productive American corn producers. Seventy-five thousand Iowa farmers grew twice as much corn as three million Mexican farmers at half the cost. U.S. corn flooded Mexico. An estimated two million Mexican farm workers in general left the countryside for big cities. Antonio Pena was one of them.

PENA: I moved to Mexico City. I learned construction.

ROBBINS: Then, like millions more Mexicans, he crossed illegally into the U.S.


ROBBINS: Antonio Pena met his wife in the U.S. He has four U.S.-born children. Now in his 40s, he restores furniture in a Tucson shop.


ROBBINS: The big wave in illegal immigration from Mexico began in the 1980s. But it picked up strongly after NAFTA. That wasn't unexpected. Philip Martin predicted it before the trade agreement passed. But Martin - a UC Davis professor who's long been studying migration - was surprised by how soon and how big the wave came after NAFTA.

PHILIP MARTIN: I thought that peak migration would have been in the late '90s, and predicted that it would start falling after 2000. In fact, Mexico-U.S. migration was more like a 20-year hump, as opposed to a 10-year hump.

ROBBINS: That 20-year hump in illegal immigration led to massive militarization along border and to millions living underground in the U.S. In Mexico, manufacturers built new factories for cars, TVs and other goods, replacing some jobs that used to be in the U.S. NAFTA has certainly benefited corporations operating in all three countries. Some economists say it's also benefited workers.

Robert Scott disagrees. Scott is a researcher with the progressive Economic Policy Institute. He says NAFTA has led to flat or lower wages for the working classes in all three countries.

ROBERT SCOTT: I think it's pretty clear that who lost were workers, ordinary workers without a college degree, production workers in the United States and Canada and Mexico.


ROBBINS: Antonio Pena was forced to leave Mexico. But now he has legal status in the U.S. and a steady job.

PENA: Yes, I make a pretty good profit, you know, to support my family, and also my mom in Mexico, you know, and myself, you know.

ROBBINS: Pena sends money back to Guanajuato. The only family members left there are his mother and an uncle.