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On the 20th Anniversary of NAFTA

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Within months of George W. Bush's first term, many citizens expressed nostalgia for the Clinton years. These feelings only increased as Bush went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy continued its downward spiral into the "Great Recession." A vast majority of the poor and middle class yearned for a time when we had a surplus rather than a deficit, an unemployment rate below five percent, and were not engulfed in multiple wars. Indeed, Clinton's popularity has only grown over time with his work with the Clinton Global Initiative and support for President Obama as the "Secretary of Explaining Stuff," most notably at the 2012 Democratic convention.

As a historian, I am constantly aware of those in my profession as well as pundits, journalists, and filmmakers who "cherry-pick" history to fit their political agendas or ideological points of view. Recently, throughout the South we have witnessed numerous events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, only to see much of this pageantry marginalize that one piece of our history called slavery. In 2011, the new U.S. House of Representatives led by Speaker John Boehner started the year by reading the Constitution on the House floor to prove Republicans were going to fight for what the original Founders intended. However, they glossed over the language in Article 1 that identified African Americans as three-fifths of a human being.

The same "cherry-picking" occurs with presidents. Liberals praise Franklin Roosevelt for the New Deal, but largely ignore his executive order authorizing Japanese internment. Conservatives want to anoint Ronald Reagan into sainthood, yet fail to mention his support for Salvadoran death squads that killed thousands of civilians. They hold on to Benghazi like a dog with a bone, but refuse to utter the phrase "Iran-Contra." Already, Bush and his supporters are attempting to rewrite the narrative on Hurricane Katrina, refusing to acknowledge that while over 1,800 people drowned in New Orleans, Bush was eating birthday cake in Arizona with Senator John McCain. All of this brings us to the one president who has gone through considerable revision: Bill Clinton.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of when the U.S. Congress, under a strong a push from President Clinton, ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he signed into law a month later. Originally, the American people were told that NAFTA would make it easier for the U.S. to import cheap goods from Mexico while exporting American made products to our southern neighbors. Thus both economies would grow, jobs would increase, and illegal immigration would decline.

Analyzing the two decades since we have had NAFTA, it is pretty clear it did none of the above, and remains the one piece of the immigration debate largely ignored. Once NAFTA became law, highly subsidized cheap corn from major U.S. corporations flooded the Mexican market, causing millions of local farmers to lose their livelihoods, and with little options, migrate illegally to the United States. President Salinas repealed Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, privatizing once public lands, which were then sold to the highest bidder, often U.S. corporations. This caused the importation of Walmart and factories producing automobiles, electronics, and clothing. Thousands of small businesses were eliminated and millions of displaced workers came to the U.S. Combined with NAFTA's low tariffs, these policies caused the U.S. to develop a labor surplus, which in part, contributed to companies hiring undocumented workers or outsourcing jobs to factories in Mexico, resulting in Americans losing their jobs. One can conclude that these actions surely caused resentment and racism to develop in some parts of the U.S.

Rather than discussing the effects of NAFTA on immigration, racism, and the economy, conservatives find it much easier to pander to their base by referring to undocumented workers as "aliens," "dogs," or "drug mules," creating something that is less than human -- an "other." Many liberals also fail to criticize NAFTA since Bill Clinton signed it into law and Hillary, whom many assume will run for president, has flip-flopped on her support. Therefore, we continue to turn a blind eye to one of the key issues in the immigration reform debate.

Many liberals argue that President Obama does not govern as a progressive, while at the same time wishing for a return to the Clinton years. However, let us not forget that it was Clinton who signed NAFTA, repealed Glass-Steagall, deregulated Wall Street, passed the GOP plan for welfare reform, and perfected "triangulation," causing Rachel Maddow to correctly refer to Clinton as "the best Republican president the country ever had." One problem for Obama is that rather than distance himself from Clinton's advisors, he embraced them. So as we look back at 20 years of NAFTA let's use it as motivation to push this president and Congress to finally do what is right: stop using the word "alien," allow undocumented students the right to dream, and pass immigration reform once and for all.