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Who Lost North America?

The project of a stronger, more united continent is on life support. It’s time for a new vision.

Edward Alden
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
U.S. Customs officers stand at the closed U.S.-Canadian border near Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22, 2020.
U.S. Customs officers stand at the closed U.S.-Canadian border near Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22, 2020.
U.S. Customs officers stand at the closed U.S.-Canadian border near Lansdowne, Ontario, on March 22, 2020. LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

When the leaders of the United States, Mexico, and Canada convene this Thursday in Washington for the first trilateral summit since 2016, they will insist that all is fine and the relationships are strong.

When the leaders of the United States, Mexico, and Canada convene this Thursday in Washington for the first trilateral summit since 2016, they will insist that all is fine and the relationships are strong.

But all is not fine. The project of greater North American integration, conceived in the 1980s and 1990s, envisioned a region of shared prosperity, growing interdependence, and stronger ties across borders. Since then, that vision has been undermined by a series of shocks: the security crackdown following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which eliminated most cross-border travel for the better part of the past two years. While relations have improved with the departure of former U.S. President Donald Trump—who was openly contemptuous of Mexico and Canada—the damage goes much deeper than just one president’s whims. U.S. President Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador may wax on this week about North American unity and common purpose. But the project of a stronger, more united continent is now on life support and needs a new vision to revive it.

There is a way to build North America back better, but it will have to start with a fundamental change in priorities. For the past three decades, even before the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the governments have been singularly focused on freeing the movement of goods and creating a more seamless continental market. What they forgot about was people. North American integration was a corporate project designed to make life easier for business. Where people benefited—as many did in the form of better jobs and cheaper consumer goods, though others lost jobs as well—it trickled down from the benefits flowing to business. It is time to put people in the middle of North America, by strengthening border communities, fostering educational exchanges, shifting cross-border rules to embrace the new world of remote work, and cooperating on issues of immigration and asylum.

I have been crossing North American borders since I was a child, mostly between the United States and Canada but later between the United States and Mexico as well. Having experienced the borders up close for so many years, I was perplexed that even as leaders were hatching grand schemes of continental integration, the actual experience for ordinary border crossers was getting ever harder. I had already noticed longer waits and more intensive questioning by border officials in the 1990s, but this got much worse after 9/11—even though none of the hijackers had entered the United States via Mexico or Canada. New document requirements discouraged many in the border regions who had long been able to travel without passports. Those who did cross faced substantially more scrutiny.

The effects were dramatic. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of people crossing into the United States from Mexico plunged by 36 percent; along the Canadian border, crossings fell by 40 percent over the same period. Those numbers have not recovered: Even before the pandemic shutdown, personal vehicle traffic from Mexico at a major U.S.-Mexican border crossing like El Paso, for example, was less than half what it was in the 1990s. On the northern border, the number of Canadian cars heading south on day trips hit an all-time peak of 59 million in 1991, a year when an unusually strong Canadian dollar encouraged cross-border shopping and border restrictions were still minimal. At later traffic peaks in 2007 and 2011, the number of day trips by car topped out at less than half that level. As with Mexico, cross-border travel from Canada has never recovered to 1990s levels.

The 1989 United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement and then NAFTA eliminated customs tariffs for businesses, freeing them to locate in any of the three countries and serve the entire continental market. But these corporate privileges weren’t extended to ordinary citizens, who still faced absurdly low limits on what they could bring back across the border without facing additional customs duties. Canadians, for example, can only bring home wares worth up to 200 Canadian dollars if they’ve been out of the country at least 24 hours, with no exemption at all for shopping day trips. And God forbid you should bring back wine or cigarettes. My wife and I once had a bottle of U.S. wine seized by Canadian border officials, who gave us a choice of paying a 100 percent customs duty or leaving the wine with them; we paid the duty and got better at hiding bottles after that. Border crossings became slower and more difficult because border officials on both sides were determined to ferret out the smuggling that their own rules incentivized.

The decline of cross-border traffic in North America is only a small part of a bigger story: NAFTA was designed to keep goods flowing but people in place. When U.S. President Bill Clinton was trying to sell the deal to a skeptical Congress in 1994, he promised that NAFTA would jump-start economic growth in Mexico, raise wages, and reduce migration—especially illegal migration, which surged in the 1990s.

No leader in any of the three countries ever seriously considered a European-style arrangement in which freer trade would be married to greater people and labor mobility. That was considered politically toxic in the United States and was only slightly more popular in Mexico and Canada, which have guarded their sovereignty fiercely and worried about the overbearing influence of Americans and their culture.

NAFTA did nothing, for example, to make it easier for most Mexicans to work in the United States legally. The deal did have a few provisions to allow highly educated workers from the three countries to cross borders for employment, but even those were considered so contentious that they were left out of the talks when Trump forced a renegotiation of NAFTA, which produced the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, in effect since July 2020.

The result of this trade-only approach has been a stunted form of integration, in which corporate relationships across the borders have flourished while people and community ties have withered. Between fears of illegal migration, terrorism, and pandemics, people somehow came to be seen as a threat to North American integration rather than the whole point of the exercise. Gone is the easy back-and-forth that existed in the 1980s and 1990s between border towns such as El Paso and Juárez or Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, for example. The sheer bureaucratic hassle of entering or reentering the United States has severed these cross-border communities. On both the southern and northern borders of the United States, many of these communities now feel less like gateways connecting countries and cultures and more like forgotten frontier outposts.

Nor did the deal produce the promised benefits on wages or migration. While NAFTA has helped some Mexicans rise into the middle classes, wage growth in Mexico has remained stagnant. Today, the U.S.-Mexican wage gap is wider than it was when the deal was inked a quarter century ago. That means the incentive for Mexicans to migrate illegally to the United States remains, as does the incentive for U.S. companies to ship jobs south of the border in search of cheaper labor.

North America’s stunted integration—free goods and unfree people—reached its nadir (one hopes) with the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdowns, the movement of goods was considered so vital that it became the only uninhibited movement still allowed by the three countries. Transport workers such as truckers and air cargo pilots (along with a few health workers) were not even required to take regular COVID-19 tests before crossing borders. While the government fact sheets on the closures referred to the importance of maintaining trade in obviously critical sectors such as food, fuel, and medicines, in practice there were no restrictions on trade at all. Whether companies were shipping ventilators or video games, the land borders stayed open for business.

In stark contrast, the movement of so-called nonessential people—those not connected to trade, or to some critical sector such as health care—was largely shut off. Ordinary citizens were barred from crossing the borders to reunite with family or loved ones, care for aging relatives, or even visit dying family members. And while all three governments worked closely together to keep trade flowing, they couldn’t be bothered to pursue even minimal coordination on travel measures for people. The United States, for example, did not reopen its land border with Canada until this November—three months after Canada reopened for vaccinated Americans.

At the border with Mexico, the U.S. government went even further. It took the unprecedented step of invoking a health regulation—Title 42—to turn back anyone arriving at border crossings, even those with claims for asylum and other forms of protection from state-sanctioned violence. While the Biden administration lifted the remaining land border restrictions this month, Title 42 remains in place. As former U.S. Customs and Border Protection chief Alan Bersin put it in the San Diego Union-Tribune: “We cannot lump family members, irregular migrants and terrorists into one undifferentiated bundle and leave them to stew month after month.”

This week’s North American summit, the first in five years, is a chance to start anew—and for Biden, López Obrador, and Trudeau to pursue a new North American agenda focused not just on corporations but on people. The goal should be to break down the barriers that have made it so challenging for Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans to build cross-border lives—which would go a long way toward rebuilding a greater level of shared understanding across North America. Business, too, has good reasons to get behind the project: The bigger the gulf among people in the three countries, the more tempting it is for politicians to play the nationalism card on trade. Members of Congress did just that in the Build Back Better bill, which would restrict special incentives for American buyers of electric vehicles to cars made in U.S. plants, preferably with union labor. That would cut Mexican and Canadian companies out of the continental supply chain for the next generation of vehicles.

One place to start rebuilding is with educational exchanges. In 2019, only 15,000 Mexican students and 26,000 Canadian students were studying at the university level in the United States, a mere fraction of the numbers from China, India, and South Korea and roughly similar to Taiwan and Vietnam. Canada receives fewer students from the United States than from Brazil, France, Nigeria, and Iran. In 2011, then-U.S. President Barack Obama launched the 100,000 Strong in the Americas partnership to try to increase U.S. education exchanges with Latin America, but the program fell far short of its targets even before the pandemic. The three governments should make a top-level commitment to building deeper ties through student exchanges at all levels. The same should be done for mid-career workers by increasing collaboration on worker retraining programs, helping to build the workforce that will be needed as the three governments are looking to strengthen the North American supply chain.

The rise of remote work offers an enormous opportunity for new collaboration. In the wake of the pandemic, many professionals from the three countries are now capable of living and working where they wish. The three countries should set a new global model by resolving issues surrounding temporary migration, work visas, and tax obligations to make it as easy as possible for remote workers to work during short visits or live in any of the three countries regardless of where their employers are based.

The Biden administration has called for a “regional vision for migration” to be a top item at the summit, which is an encouraging sign. The three countries have long gone their own directions on migration: The United States is pushing asylum-seekers and other border crossers back to Mexico, Mexico is trying to shore up its southern border with Guatemala, and Canada is hoping to steer clear of the whole mess. A regional solution would be far better. Canada is among the world’s most generous countries in accepting refugees and asylum-seekers, but few of those come from Central America. Canada and Mexico have developed a model for temporary labor migration that could be expanded across the region. All three countries should be working together to address the drug violence and poverty that are causing so many citizens of the Northern Triangle countries to head north.

Finally, border towns and cities need help. For decades, they have been the victims of national policies that have hardened the borders and reduced the daily back-and-forth of cross-border visitors that was the economic and cultural lifeblood of these communities. Creative responses could include new documents modeled after the Border Crossing Card for Mexicans, which permits short-term visits to the U.S. border regions. Other tried-and-tested models exist in many places around the world. The three countries should be making it as easy as possible for border region residents to cross to shop, visit friends, work, or own vacation properties. In the short term, the three governments need to establish common COVID-19 protocols: Canada, for example, is still requiring expensive PCR tests even for vaccinated travelers, making short-term visit prohibitively expensive for many.

These examples would only be the first steps of what should be a broader, people-focused North American agenda. NAFTA has been great for business but has largely left people outside the vision of an integrated North America. When they meet in Washington on Thursday, it is time for the leaders of North America to put their people back in the middle.

Edward Alden is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden

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