Part 3. NAFTA and immigration



The controversies around NAFTA involve more than free trade. NAFTA also raises important questions about immigration. For example, do trade agreements reduce immigration by improving living standards? Or, does opening the marketplace simply create new opportunities for crossing the border?

Nearly 25 years into NAFTA’s history, the debate over immigration persists.

Looking at the data, there was a sharp uptick in Mexican immigration in the years immediately surrounding NAFTA’s formation. However, the last decade has been characterized by a plateauing – and even a slight decline – in movement across the US-Mexico border.



NAFTA’s early supporters argued that the deal would help reduce migration from Mexico into the US. The logic was simple: providing greater economic opportunities for Mexican workers would lessen incentives to migrate north.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that NAFTA fulfilled its promise.

For one thing, NAFTA’s economic benefits have been mixed. As Mexico opened its economy to US imports, small farmers found it difficult to compete with major American agribusiness, particularly in industries like corn.

Moreover, years of stagnant wage growth didn’t do much to deter individuals seeking better incomes elsewhere.


As a result, many argue that the agreement failed to significantly improve quality of life for Mexican workers and, in fact, led to more immigration.

What do the available numbers say? Let's look at authorized immigration first. 



One simple picture suggests NAFTA hugely increased the number of Mexican immigrants living in the United States. Between 1990 and 2000, the total number Mexican immigrants more than doubled from 4.3 million to 9.1 million.


But that lone statistic is misleading for two reasons.

First, the rapid rate of growth in the '90s was consistent with previous decades. The population of Mexican immigrants had also doubled in the 1980s (from 2.2 million to 4.3). And it more than doubled in the ‘70s (from 750 thousand to 2.2 million).

Therefore, it’s difficult to say NAFTA itself caused the increase. In fact, it’s just as accurate to say that exploding immigration numbers help explain why NAFTA was formed in the first place.

Second, the data show that levels have stabilized in recent years.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that the total number of immigrants from Mexico – both authorized and unauthorized – has been reasonably flat over the last decade, hovering around approximately 11.5 million. While there was some fluctuation during the Great Recession, annual growth since 2005 averages less than 1 percent.


Mexicans also make up a declining share of total immigrants in the US. Mexican citizens (or residents of Mexican origin) accounted for 31 percent of all immigrants in 2007. In 2016, they were down 4.5 points to 26.5 percent.

Thus, after several decades of sharp increases, the number have tailed off from pre-Great Recession highs. 



In terms of authorized immigration, it’s worth noting that the US government offers a separate nonimmigrant visa program under NAFTA.

Citizens of Mexico and Canada – in certain careers – are eligible for a nonimmigrant NAFTA Professional (TN) visa. This program allows high-skilled individuals to enter the US for “prearranged business activities.”

To NAFTA’s opponents, this might sound like a bad deal. It implies that high-skilled jobs are going to foreign workers.

The data doesn’t support that worry.

Just over 25,000 TN visas were issued in 2017. To put that in perspective, that’s 25,000 out of the 9.7 million total visas, of all types, issued in 2017.

And, even though the number of annual TN visas has increased over time, the program currently accounts for less than 0.3 percent of all nonimmigrant issuances.


It turns out that almost all TN visas are issued to Mexican citizens. However, TN issuances account for only 2 percent of the 1.3 million visas Mexicans received in 2017. (The overwhelming majority of visas granted to Mexican citizens are B-1 or B-2s for temporary visitors.)

Therefore, ‘NAFTA visas’ simply don’t factor into concerns over immigration.

Rather, the program allows high-skilled workers into the United States in a manner that contributes positively to the economy. And it does so on a scale that simply isn’t large enough to generate real worries about job displacement.



Of course, the bigger political debate is almost always over unauthorized immigration.

It’s hard to get precise data. However, the Pew Research Center reports that unauthorized residents from Mexico have actually declined over the last 10 years. After peaking in 2007, unauthorized immigrants from Mexico are estimates to have dropped by roughly 1 million. 


Critics might still argue that 5.85 million immigrants is a lot. And, it's true that the current 5.85 million is twice the number estimated in 1995.

But putting these numbers in perspective is again important. Unauthorized immigrants from the rest of the world also nearly doubled over the same period.

As a result, it’s difficult to say that NAFTA is chiefly responsible a surge in “illegal immigration.” Patterns of Mexican immigration echo the broader trend.


Another way to get at unauthorized migration is to look at border apprehensions data from US Customs and Border Protection. They report the number of “illegal alien apprehensions” per year at America’s borders.

If NAFTA was causing a significant spike in unauthorized border crossings, one would expect to see an uptick in enforcement activity.

The data show exactly the opposite. Total apprehensions in 2017 (310 thousand) were 30 percent of the 1994 total (1 million). And they are only 18 percent of the peak in 2000 (1.6 million).


To be sure, a lot can factor into the apprehensions data. CBP faces budget constraints and, importantly, immigration policies change over time.

But, holding those worries aside, there is no evidence that NAFTA led to a sustainedspike in enforcement. Instead, the modest increase in the late 1990s dropped off precipitously over time. Apprehension incidents are now far lower than they were prior to NAFTA. 


Taking a step back, there is a tremendous amount that goes into decisions to migrate. It’s very difficult to identify the independent effect that NAFTA may have on individual’s decisions to move. As a result, this essay can't claim to address causality. 

All this essay can do is look at broad patterns in the data. When we do that, a couple of things emerge:

  • The number of Mexican immigrants living in the US doubled in the 1990s… but the number of Mexican immigrants living in the US also doubled in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

  • The number NAFTA visas issued is now fourteen times higher than it was in 2001… but TN visas are less than 1 percent of total visas issued. And they are only than 2 percent of all visas granted to Mexicans.

  • Unauthorized immigrants from Mexico swelled to 6.95 million in 2007… but have declined by more than 1 million since.

  • Border enforcement actions (apprehensions) topped out at 1.67 million in 2001… but totaled only 310 thousand in 2017.

NAFTA at 25Jeffrey Kucik