Trump should not lightly discount the border and homeland security implications of a NAFTA withdrawal. A fracture in the American-Mexican relationship and the resulting consequences should worry us all.

Share story

Although it is difficult to determine with any certitude President Donald Trump’s intention with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), recent statements from the administration indicate an increasing probability the president will pursue a withdrawal from NAFTA.

The debate has focused largely on economic issues, but a United States withdrawal would have far broader implications, including impacting Southwest border security. In making good on his pledge to exit NAFTA, Trump would undermine his commitment to strengthen border security.

Economic migration is, essentially, a function of two factors: The “push” factors that come from the originating country, and the “pull” factors in the destination country. For a long time, those factors drove a large migration from Mexico to the U.S. Stagnation and lack of opportunity in Mexico motivated persons to leave, while the labor market and jobs in the U.S. brought those economic migrants here.

This has changed dramatically. Between 2000 and 2016, illicit migration from Mexico as measured by Border Patrol apprehensions dropped nearly 90 percent. Recent research indicates that there has been an outflow of Mexicans from the U.S., and most of the illicit crossings on the Southwest border are Central Americans.

The precise reasons for this shift are debatable, but the collapse of NAFTA may reverse the current trend. The modern Mexican economy is directly linked to the U.S., and it is dependent upon NAFTA. Should the U.S. withdraw, it would precipitate economic chaos in, if not a significant retraction of, the Mexican economy. Indeed, Trump’s hostility toward Mexico coupled with the end of NAFTA would likely result in the election of a nationalist, anti-American candidate in the 2018 Mexican presidential election, which would cause further economic regression in Mexico.

With economic disruption and contraction will come job losses in Mexico and a lessening of opportunity — precisely the type of conditions that push migrants to cross into the U.S. The United States will continue to need labor and can absorb those migrants — the pull factor. These are the very conditions to fuel another surge of economic migration into the U.S., a surge that would reverse the gains we have made to lower the flow of illegal crossings. Trump’s NAFTA stance is the greatest threat to his promises to lower further illegal crossings.

Even more problematic, NAFTA withdrawal is a danger to the American-Mexican security relationship. Economic integration and partnership created the conditions for our modern security work with Mexico. It was only after NAFTA that the U.S. and Mexico began a sustained collaboration on law-enforcement and border-management issues, which culminated in the Merida Initiative to fight organized crime and violence, and the 21st Century Border Management initiative to form a strategic relationship between the two economic partners.

Our work with Mexico on security reached unprecedented levels in the last few years: from collaborating on stemming the flow of Central Americans and third-country nationals, to confronting the drug cartels, to cooperating to prevent violence at the border, to managing jointly repatriations of apprehended Mexicans, to direct law enforcement coordination at the border.

Mexico is also an essential partner in preventing terrorists from entering North America. The Mexican government has cooperated on sharing and vetting information about inbound air passengers for years, and it has worked to ensure that no potential terrorists gain access to our Southwest border. If this cooperation ceases, it would be much easier for a terrorist network to exploit human trafficking routes that run through Mexico to the U.S.

Recent U.S.-Mexican security cooperation is no small accomplishment given the historic concerns in Mexico regarding its sovereignty and the possibility for American overreach into domestic Mexican affairs. For decades, Mexican politicians could not be seen as being too favorable to the U.S. The two nations have finally moved beyond historical distrust and antagonism. These gains should not be thrown away.

The security relationship is, historically speaking, strong, but it is far from certain if it could withstand a breach as grave as a withdrawal from NAFTA and the subsequent economic problems it would create in Mexico, especially when combined with the antagonistic statements from the president about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Mexican domestic opinion could turn against cooperation with the U.S., coupled with the election of persons in Mexico who have no incentive to work with us on pressing security matters.

As the administration navigates the NAFTA negotiations and the decision on whether to pursue withdrawal, the president should not lightly discount the border and homeland security implications of a NAFTA withdrawal. A fracture in the American-Mexican relationship and the resulting consequences should worry us all.