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A roadblock to Mexico

In a move that defies the North American Free Trade Agreement and hurts U.S. workers, Congress is denying Mexican truckers permission to travel more than a few miles north of the border.

March 24, 2009

Thanks to the latest protectionist move by Congress to dodge our free-trade obligations with Mexico, in six to eight weeks, more than 20,000 pounds of California strawberries that ordinarily would be headed south of the border will have nowhere to go. The 80,000 people employed by the industry, however, know exactly where their jobs will be headed -- into thin air. At least that's the worst-case scenario if Congress doesn't find a way to honor the North American Free Trade Agreement and give Mexican trucks permission to travel more than a few miles north of the border, as required by the treaty.

Earlier this month, Congress killed a successful pilot project that gave a handful of Mexican truckers freedom to haul products beyond a circumscribed region, citing specious environmental and safety concerns. And Mexico responded by slapping tariffs on 90 U.S. exports. But let's be clear, this isn't about safety; Congress just wants the benefits of free trade without the sacrifices that come with it. Nor is this recalcitrance new. In 1995, after the United States refused to comply with NAFTA's cross-border trucking provision, Mexico negotiated for three years and then sought help from an arbitration panel. The result was a unanimous ruling that the U.S. was in violation of the treaty and that Mexico was within its rights to retaliate. In response, Congress introduced 22 new safety requirements for Mexican trucks. Finally, after more negotiations, the two countries compromised on an 18-month demonstration project that permitted 45,000 border crossings by 103 trucks from Mexico and 61 from the United States. The safety records were excellent, giving the lie to the idea that the program created a hazard.

The California congressional delegation must take the lead on this matter and revive the program. Free trade is not a zero-sum game in which double-dealing with Mexico benefits U.S. workers. Maybe the Teamsters are now safe from competition, but other workers and industries will suffer. The state's grape growers, for example, face a staggering 45% tariff on their exports, which would effectively close a market worth $58 million to them and jeopardize the livelihoods of 50,000 people. Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who sponsored the amendment killing the pilot program, says he'll support Mexican trucking if his safety concerns are addressed; the Obama administration says it is committed to a new program, and the U.S. trade representative is crafting new legislation now. But they need to hurry. After 14 years of reneging on this program, the U.S. has to make good on its word -- in the next eight weeks.

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