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North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, Macroeconomic reform in Mexico, Migrant labor, Mexican labor movement, Mexican immigration


Immigration Law | International Law | International Trade Law


The debate over immigration policy in the United States has reached a crescendo in recent years, with particular concern over illegal workers and their impact on social well-being in this country. Yet in the prevailing analysis of this issue, the relationship between immigration and contemporary international trade policy is often overlooked. In particular, few commentators recognize or understand that a significant part of the surge in illegal labor from Mexico--the source of the majority of undocumented workers in the United States—stems from reforms that Mexico undertook in cooperation with the United States to liberalize trade flows across the Mexico-United States border.

This Article seeks to elucidate that relationship by focusing on a particular example: agricultural production in Mexico, especially the production of corn, the staple crop of Mexican farmers. Since 1994, the following interrelationship between international trade rules, labor, and migration has unfolded across the Mexico-United States border: first, corn imports have surged into Mexico from the United States under import policy reforms brought about by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and related economic liberalizations in Mexico; and, second, displaced agricultural labor has migrated out of rural Mexico into Mexican cities, maquiladoras, and, not infrequently, the United States.

This Article recounts the particulars of NAFTA-induced corn import surges from the U.S. across the border to Mexico delving into the specifics within the broader context of liberalization. Part I describes the background of macroeconomic reform in Mexico; Part II discusses that reform in the context of labor relations in Mexico; Part III describes the impact of these transformative forces on labor migration; Part IV illustrates the cumulative effect of these events on local maize production; and Part V concludes the Article by summarizing the general and specific dynamics at play in liberalization and production across the Mexico-U.S. border, with associated effects on cross-border migration.

Publication Citation

Published in: McGeorge Law Review, Vol. 41, No. 4 (2010).