North American Free Trade Agreement Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This international agreement facilitated the movement of trade goods and persons among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and had the effect of accelerating the influx of undocumented Mexican migrants into the United States.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1992 and ratified in 1993 by the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico and took effect on January 1, 1994. NAFTA established a free trade zone in North America by immediately lifting tariffs on the majority of goods produced by the signatory nations. It also called for the gradual elimination, over a period of fifteen years, of most remaining barriers to cross-border investments and to the movement of goods and services among the three countries.[a]North American Free Trade AgreementCanada;and North American Free Trade Agreement[North American Free Trade Agreement]Mexico;and North American Free Trade Agreement[North American Free Trade Agreement][a]North American Free Trade Agreement[cat]INTERNATIONAL AGREEMENTS;North American Free Trade Agreement[03930][cat]MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS;North American Free Trade Agreement[03930][cat]CANADIAN IMMIGRANTS;NorthAmerican Free Trade Agreement[03930][cat]BUSINESS;North American Free Trade Agreement[03930][cat]BORDERS;North American Free Trade Agreement[03930]

Mobility of Immigrants

Chapter 16 of NAFTA specifically concerns cross-border movement of persons within the NAFTA region. It makes four categories of travelers eligible for temporary entry from one NAFTA country into another: business visitors, traders and investors, intracompany transferees, and professionals. There are more than sixty listed qualifying NAFTA Professional (TN) titles, including computer systems analysts, accountants, hotel managers, management consultants, economists, engineers, scientists, and teachers. NAFTA defines “temporary entry” as entry without the intent to establish permanent residence. For example, the United States specifies that visiting aliens must satisfy inspecting immigration officers that their proposed stays are temporary. A temporary period has a reasonable, finite end that does not equate to permanent residence. In order to establish that visits will be temporary, alien visitors must demonstrate to the satisfaction of inspecting immigration officers that their work assignments in the United States will end at predictable times and that they will promptly return home upon completion of their assignments. For each of the above four categories, spouses and dependents can enter NAFTA member countries as visitors so long as they meet the member country’s existing temporary entry immigration regulations.

NAFTA initialing ceremony in October, 1992. Standing, from left to right: Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, U.S. president George H. W. Bush, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney. Seated: Jaime Serra Puche, Carla Hills, and Michael Wilson.

(George Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

Citizens of Canada and Mexico who wish to enter and work as professionals in the United States need NAFTA-based Visas;TNnonimmigrant TN visas. To apply for and receive such visas, applicants must provide the U.S. immigration agencies with all necessary documentation, such as passports to prove their Canadian or Mexican citizenship. They must also show proof of their professional qualifications, such as transcripts of grades, licenses, certificates, degrees, or records of previous employment, and letters verifying their employment in the United States. Application fees of fifty U.S. dollars are charged.

Canadian citizens can apply for TN visas at U.S. ports of entry; Mexican citizens must do this at U.S. embassy consular sections and submit to appointed interviews there. The maximum period of stay for TN visa holders in the United States was originally one year; this period was extended to three years in October, 2008, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can grant extensions in increments of one year. There is no limit on the number of years that a TN visa holder may stay in the United States. When the applicants are already in the United States, their employers may file Form I-129 (Petition for Non-immigrant Worker) with the Nebraska Service Center of the USCIS, or the applicants may reapply at a port of entry using the same application and documentation procedures above as required for the initial entry.

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, during fiscal year 2006 (October, 2005, through September, 2006), 74,098 foreign professionals (64,633 Canadians and 9,247 Mexicans) were admitted into the United States for temporary employment under NAFTA. Additionally, 17,321 of their family members (13,136 Canadians, 2,904 Mexicans, as well as a number of third-country nationals married to Canadians and Mexicans) entered the United States.

Increased Illegal Immigration<index-term><primary>Illegal immigration;and North American Free Trade Agreement[North American Free Trade Agreement]</primary></index-term><index-term><primary>Mexican immigrants;illegal</primary></index-term>

Implementation of NAFTA accelerated the movement of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States in several ways. First, the economic integration under NAFTA created increased cross-border traffic, which made illegal migration easier. Second, NAFTA functioned to expand and then contract Mexico’s MaquiladorosMexico;Maquiladorosmaquiladora industry, which assembled a large, mobile workforce just across the Rio Grande, leading to the unemployment of many Mexican workers. Third, the import of inexpensive American Agriculture;and North American Free Trade Agreement[North American Free Trade Agreement]agricultural goods caused the bankruptcy of many Mexican farmers and therefore pushed large numbers of Mexican farmworkers out of work. These dislocated Mexican workers increasingly chose to seek a new life in the United States.

Before NAFTA went into effect, undocumented Mexican immigrants came mainly from four or five Mexican states and a limited number of mostly rural municipalities. Since NAFTA has been in effect, immigrants have come from all Mexican states and practically all municipalities. The counterpart of this hollowing out of the Mexican countryside is the growth of the Mexican migrant population in the United States, much of it undocumented. American states that had only handfuls of Hispanics in 1990 counted sizable Hispanic populations by 2006. In Georgia;Mexican immigrantsGeorgia, for example, the Latin-origin population went from 1.7 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000, due to an inflow of 300,000 persons, overwhelmingly from Mexico. Cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, whose Hispanics in 1990 consisted of a few wealthy Cuban and South American professionals, had more than 80,000 Hispanic residents in 2006, mostly undocumented Mexican laborers. These Mexican migrants were without any significant political voices and proved vulnerable to exploitation.

To prevent or discourage undocumented migrants from entering the United States, U.S. authorities began working to tighten border enforcement in 1993 by building new physical fortifications and virtual surveillance systems. By 2006, more than $20 billion had been spent on this project. Nevertheless, the project proved ineffective, and massive illegal Mexican migration to the United States continued. To evade apprehension by the U.S. Border Patrol and to reduce the risks posed by natural hazards, Mexican migrants have turned increasingly to people Smuggling of immigrants;"coyotes"[coyotes]smugglers (coyotes), which in turn has enabled smugglers to charge more for their services. With clandestine border crossing an increasingly expensive and risky business, U.S. border enforcement policy has unintentionally encouraged undocumented migrants to remain in the United States for longer periods and settle permanently in the United States in much larger numbers.[a]North American Free Trade Agreement

Further Reading
  • Ashbee, Edward, Helene Balslev Clausen, and Carl Pedersen, eds. The Politics, Economics, and Culture of Mexican-U.S. Migration: Both Sides of the Border. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Collection of essays examining all aspects of Mexican immigration to the United States from both American and Mexican perspectives.
  • Belous, Richard S., and Jonathan Lemco, eds. NAFTA as a Model of Development. Washington, D.C.: National Planning Association, 1993. Collection of twenty-one conference papers presents a good variety of viewpoints, including several from the perspective of Canada and Mexico.
  • Cameron, Maxwell A., and Brian W. Tomlin. The Making of NAFTA: How the Deal Was Done. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Covers the background of the diplomatic process and offers a full account of the negotiations resulting in the NAFTA agreement.
  • Cornelius, Wayne A., and Jessa M. Lewis, eds. Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration: The View from Sending Communities. La Jolla, Calif.: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2007. Essays examining Mexican perspective on immigration to the United States.
  • Grayson, George W. The North American Free Trade Agreement: Regional Community and the New World Order. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995. Presents a narrative history of the debates and negotiations surrounding NAFTA up to the time the treaty was approved.
  • Kingsolver, Ann E. NAFTA Stories: Fears and Hopes in Mexico and the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001. Presents a wide variety of viewpoints about NAFTA as revealed in stories told by people from many different backgrounds.
  • Weintraub, Sidney, ed. NAFTA’s Impact on North America: The First Decade. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2004. Collection of essays examining the political, social, and nontrade impact of NAFTA through its first decade.

Border fence

Border Patrol, U.S.

Canada vs. United States as immigrant destinations

Canadian immigrants

Economic opportunities

Homeland Security, Department of

Illegal immigration

Mexican immigrants

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