05/16/2014 11:47 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2014

Opportunities Beyond NAFTA for US-Mexican Collaboration (Pt. 2)

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Note: This post is part two of a piece about criticisms of NAFTA and the need for more comprehensive cooperative policies between the U.S. and Mexico

In the first post of this series, I described that many objections to NAFTA actually object to issues that NAFTA does not address. While some tout free trade as the evil face of neoliberalism, it in fact is not the demon it is made out to be by some, but rather a mixed bag. It is neither a silver bullet nor a catastrophe. In her book, Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead, Shannon O'Neil, Senior Fellow on Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations points out that "economic liberalization alone can't be the engine for growth."

The knee-jerk reaction to blame NAFTA for any problems related to the U.S. or Mexico reveals the need for a deeper collaboration between the two countries to facilitate more comprehensive policies that will benefit both sides of the border.

We Need Policies That Address Social Inclusion

Social inclusion in both Mexico and the United States presents a huge challenge. Mexico is the second most unequal country in Latin America, but the United States isn't too low on the list either. In the past 25 years, Mexico has made great strides in increasing per-capita income from a little over $6,000 in 1990 to over $15,000 in 2011, largely through expanding social programs that provide health insurance to low income families and subsidizes low-income families to keep their children in school. But inequality remains high in Mexico and is on the rise in the U.S.

"North American partners need to develop the relationship into the labor movement," former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo said at the launch, "NAFTA After 20 and in 20" last week in a panel alongside Mack McClarty, who was Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff.

U.S. policies should support programs that improve social mobility and access to markets for Mexican workers and entrepreneurs, which would benefit them more than increased border control. Thanks to NAFTA, our commodities chain is inextricably tied. An expanded relationship between Mexico and the U.S. that goes beyond the production belt would measure for quality of life as well as profits between the two countries.

Despitea 400 percent growth in trade between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, it is not enough to hope that policies that are good for business will trickle down to help the people who are shunted out of the system. Thus we must address social mobility, poverty and workers rights in both countries, improving institutions domestically in Mexico in the judicial and education sectors as well as in the police force.

This is all easy enough to say, but social inclusion needs to be put into terms that policymakers and business leaders see as strategically viable -- and in way that benefits everyone, not just a select few.

We Need to Work Together to Address Immigration Reform

Of course, no other factor affects the U.S.-Mexico relationship more than immigration reform. During the past two administrations, border protection expenditures have increased 500 percent, while almost no work has been done to improve border infrastructure. O'Neil asserts that this exorbitant effort has weeded out more innocuous border crossings and forced the creation of more sophisticated, sinister (often cartel-related) means to cross the border. This new style of migration not only pads crime networks, but makes it harder for undocumented immigrants to return home or reunite with their families.

The policy of opening trade but hardening the border is hypocritical, counterproductive, and an egregious waste of taxpayer's money. O'Neil writes, "Over the last three decades the U.S. government wrongfully presumed that it could open up goods and capital markets with its southern neighbor while closing off the movement of labor... Today's dysfunctional system leaves the United States and Mexico less able to manage the flows in ways that would be beneficial to both." At the launch, Ernesto Zedillo called the system "absurd."

Any effective policy will require labor input from both sides. Because of NAFTA, there are multiple border crossing during the production process, and thus, many Mexican and U.S. hands working on the same products. Our economies are inextricably linked. And yet our immigration policy sends the message that we want nothing to do with Mexican citizens. Only 40% of Americans view Mexico positively. The culture of ignorance, stereotype and fear that pervades U.S. media about Mexico and Mexicans certainly doesn't help us reach any kind of diplomatic, bilateral policy that would benefit both sides of the border.

We Need Policies That Will Target the Drug Trade

The hardening of the border and the growth of drug cartels are not exactly strangers. A recent New Yorker article about the capture of El Chapo, Mexico's most notorious drug lord cites that the Sinaloa cartel alone has built over 900 tunnels under the border that move operations literally underground. These organizations have begun to employ techniques that are nearly impossible to track and even harder to curtail.

The drug trade threatens the strengthening of Mexico's institutions, as the endless amounts of money that Mexican cartels can make (on majority U.S. drug users) exert far more power - and sometimes even render more effective social services -- than Mexico's emerging democracy. The U.S. can't pretend this isn't their problem, too. The insatiable U.S. demand for these black market goods - which are expanding from drugs into other sectors too -- is the impetus that give cartels the means to endlessly accrue power, creating Mexico's biggest roadblock to ever reaching a stable democracy.

Drug decriminalization has a long way to go, but it is in U.S. interest to recognize that many policy reforms important to the U.S. are also important to Mexico and vice-versa -- and this goes way beyond free trade. Zedillo puts it plainly. "What we do today is extremely stupid. We enrich the problem." He believes that the only realistic way to "change the terms of the debate" is to undermine the black market. Shannon O'Neil compellingly argues the same, saying that U.S. drug policy follows Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: trying the same strategy over and over, and expecting different results.

NAFTA and Beyond:

For naysayers of international free trade, the trend of prioritizing economic opening over social inclusion is an unfortunate but historically consistent status quo. The retrospective look that many organizations have taken at NAFTA in light of its twentieth anniversary are hopeful in that they set the stage for many reforms that strive to expand global trade treaties towards implementing environmental and employee standards.

Globalization, encouraged by free trade, has made the viral, international nature of movements like The 99% possible, demonstrating that the people want a transparent democracy that treats people as people, not corporations. Trade agreements like NAFTA must have working systems in place that make room for collective bargaining and enhance democracy by giving voice to the people rather than deferring to the wielding power of billion-dollar corporations. The Trans-Pacific Partnership could have that potential, but its outlook is already concerning. Most negotiations thus far have taken place at closed-door meetings between its players' most wealthy.

What NAFTA did prove, according to McClarty, is that it is possible to negotiate a bipartisan, multinational agreement even in a divided government. We must try to strategize in a similar way to pass much-needed reforms in sectors other than business in order to negotiate effective immigration and drug policy reform that will benefit both Mexico and the U.S.

The symbiotic relationship between Mexico and the U.S. demands a better understanding of the general public interest of both countries. The U.S. needs to support not only economic agreements but also agreements that are beneficial to the public, international good. Changing the discussion on drug policy and immigration reform would be a good first step.