Inter-Americas Immigration Ignored in Debates Over Trans-Pacific Partnership

Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, famously said, “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’. Give me a one-handed economist!” Truman’s frustration seems especially relevant in the wake of long-awaited agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an international free trade agreement so far-reaching, complex, and controversial, that an exhaustive analysis of its trade-offs and ramifications would prove headache-inducing

Image courtesy of DFATD | MAECD © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of DFATD | MAECD © 2013, some rights reserved.

Of the twelve nations comprising the partnership, the United States, Peru, Chile, Canada, Mexico represent the Americas in the agreement, which the Council on Foreign Relations described as the, “the largest and most consequential trade agreement since the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) more than two decades ago”.[1] The signatories represent 40% of global trade, and their populations nearly double that of the European Union.[2]

Though the ratification of the TPP awaits U.S. congressional approval, among other countries, this agreement has marked a new era for international economic cooperation. In sum, expanded and less regulated trade may facilitate investment and fuel regional growth and cooperation, but even its proponents accept that new growth will come at a price. To its critics, TPP represents the kind of secretive, undemocratic multilateralism that anti-globalization activists cite as examples of preferential trade agreements to lower import tariffs for the benefit transnational companies. Noam Chomsky has called the deal a “neoliberal assault to further corporate domination” that will have the effect of pitting the “working people in the world in competition with one another so as to lower wages to increase insecurity.”[3] To be fair, both sides of the debate will need to wait until the full text of the agreement is made public to fully stake their claims. In the meantime, what is already clear is that migration is the ‘dark horse’ of these debates, closely connected with the deregulation and market liberalisation that TPP will bring but underrepresented in the surrounding debates.

The Obama administration has argued that the agreement will curb exploitative, child, forced, and underpaid labour through a protections regime, ensuring benefits and safety programmes which in theory would mitigate push factors for economic migrants seeking better paid and safer work. In a broader sense, the underlying benefit for all the states signing on to TPP is economic growth, so if the conventional economic wisdom that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ holds, then migration within the Americas for economic gain should decrease. In practice, however, this “trickle-down economics” stands to benefit national economies and business interests foremost. The extent to which TPP will affect popular-level poverty is unsure and will severely vary by country. Economic and other forms of migration are subject to a myriad of factors, so it is important to note that the enactment of the TPP and the regulatory change it entails will not change demographic trends and socioeconomic conditions overnight, but it is worth noting how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a predecessor to the current accord, affected inter-Americas migration after it took effect in 1994.

Though TPP is being sold as an ‘update’ to NAFTA, “upgrading existing standards and setting new high standards that reflect today’s economic realities” and better addressing NAFTA’s labour and environmental shortcomings, there is little to celebrate for NAFTA critics who argue that improving on the worst is still part and parcel of a race to the bottom for free trade policy taking the individual into little account at the expense of big business interests.

Under NAFTA, the lifting of import tariffs on American products meant that for Mexico, for example, US-subsidized crops undercut Mexican-produced wheat and corn, putting smaller farmers out of business and millions out of work. During the advent of NAFTA, however, President Clinton’s Attorney General claimed that the pact would benefit Mexican workers and lead to a two-thirds reduction in immigration across the US-Mexican border. In 1994 Janet Reno argued, “NAFTA is our best hope for reducing illegal migration over the long haul. If it fails, effective immigration control will become impossible.”[4] Yet the net result of NAFTA was a decline in real wages for Mexican workers and a spike in immigration rates to the US.[5] TPP may not have an identical effect, but it does serve to entrench and broaden policies akin to NAFTA on a larger scale, so it stands to reason that the increase in economic inequality and forced migration within the Americas following NAFTA could be replicated or made worse. When enacted TPP will give transnational corporations less resticted ability to move labour to lower-wage countries like Vietnam, where labour costs are 1/3 that of China, so jobs, wages, and working conditions and smaller businesses in Latin and South America are under threat. In addition to NAFTA, the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) signed in 2004 ushered in preferential trade between El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic intensified existing trends of Central American immigration to the US.[6]

Although the full TPP and any stipulations on immigration are not yet available to the public, there has been relatively little debate on this issue in the wake of TPP’s approval. The lack of concern for the implications on immigration to the US is surprising considering that for the U.S., bipartisan agreement on the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform has not yet translated into action, despite controversy over Obama’s 2014 executive action on the status of undocumented people currently awaiting its day in the Supreme Court. The reform bill that the Senate passed in 2013 was never brought to a vote in the House of Representative due to opposition from the Republican-controlled House leadership, the most recent setback in 25 years of efforts to reform the process of immigration into the U.S.. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has said that “temporary entry” guest worker visas are a “key feature” of the TPP, but it is unclear how this policy will work in practice and fits into the existing U.S. immigration regime. This policy could mean foreign workers and their families would not be counted within immigration quotas, allowing immigration policy to change in practice in the absence of congressional agreement on new pathways for earned citizenship and streamlined legal immigration. Reform is already sorely overdue: there are 11 million undocumented workers in the United States and 70% of the agricultural workforce in the U.S. is undocumented. The immigration system in the U.S. cannot put corporate interests in expediting the process for some guest workers above the pressing need for a comprehensive overhaul of regulations on citizenship, border control, and detention and The effect of the TPP on immigration may further burden this system and change the rules without congressional reform, making what was already politically tricky even less likely, despite how prominent an issue immigration has proven to be in the presidential primary debates.[9]

While other concerns with the TPP such as internet freedom and environmental impact have been fodder for grassroots activism, the effect on workers and population movement has been underexplored. Though the law of unintended consequences holds that policymakers truly cannot predict outcomes of a massive and complex accord such as the TPP, the consequences for individuals here certainly could be taken into account and predicted by learning from the history of other such trade deals. The issue here is not of ignorance, but of priority.

Too often in discussions over ‘hard’ economics, including those regarding the TPP, ‘soft’ issues like immigration are seen as being secondary, or worse, social issues of internal concern for signatory states. However, it is clear that these macroeconomic policies influence the labour market and the economic ‘push’ factors that drive immigration. Though strategic concerns are at the fore for the member states, with many speculating that this effort aims to compete with China’s role as a regional economic hegemon, in an age of multilateralism it doesn’t make sense that migration is not negotiated at this same level.

In the coming weeks, legislatures in the individual states signed onto the TPP will debate details of the deal, how it will be implemented, and whether it should be ratified. In the U.S., the ‘fast-track’ authority granted to the President means that Congress cannot amend the agreement, but only review it. Though not to suggest that these political debates revert to fear-mongering about potential consequences for immigration trends, the chapter related to immigration that the TPP is said to contain must be reviewed with scrutiny, and cannot be a de facto substitute for bipartisan immigration reform that is necessary to ensure that the U.S. has Unfortunately, the prospects for TPP and the influence of the parties who stand to benefit, namely multinational corporations, don’t render these critical debates about U.S. immigration policy likely before the agreement takes effect.

‘Teeming Shores’ is a biweekly column that broadly covers issues related to global migration and how the movement of peoples can reshape traditional conceptions of sovereignty and security. The title is referential to the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus that is engraved on the Statue of Liberty in America.