During the debate over the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, advocates assured the U.S. and Mexican public that the trade agreement would greatly alleviate unauthorized migration by increasing employment opportunities in Mexico and closing the gap between U.S. and Mexican wages. But the promise of cross border prosperity has been a mirage for millions of Mexicans: the value of the Mexican minimum wage dropped 20 percent in NAFTA's first decade, and the price of tortillas—Mexico's daily bread—rose more than 500 percent between 1993 and 2000. The increase in poverty has led to a drastic increase in migration, especially in the countryside.
The consequent upsurge in the number of Mexicans emigrating to the U.S. has neither been curbed by U.S. security measures nor by economic policies. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of immigrants to the United States from Mexico actually decreased by 18 percent in the three years before NAFTA's implementation. But in the first eight years of NAFTA, the annual number of immigrants from Mexico increased by more than 61 percent.
Unless we reframe both the immigration and trade debates, and gain an understanding of the intricate links between economic policies, poverty, and migration patterns, policymakers will continue to put a small band-aid over the large wound.