The Mariposa Port of Entry at Nogales is a bustling hub of international trade, through which thousands of Mexican trucks rumble into the United States each year.
You could almost point to this port as a success story of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which liberalized commerce between Canada, the United States and Mexico. Almost, but not quite.
Today, more than 15 years after NAFTA was implemented, one of its key elements—allowing Mexican trucks to travel freely across the United States—remains hostage to American politics.
On one side are unions such as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who have long opposed NAFTA, fearing competition from Mexican drivers. They've persistently argued that Mexican trucks are substandard and would present a safety threat if allowed onto American highways.
On the other side are business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who claim the ongoing truck embargo damages business ties between the two countries.
The result is a trade agreement that remains only partially fulfilled.
With brief exceptions—such as a 2007 pilot program that allowed about 100 Mexican trucking companies wide passage in the United States—the foreign carriers remain restricted to a zone reaching 25 miles north of the border. In Nogales, that means they can drop off produce and other shipments on the city's north side, but can't travel much farther.
Not surprisingly, Mexico hasn't taken this direct violation of its trade agreement lightly. After Congress cut the pilot program's funding last year, Mexico retaliated by hiking tariffs on nearly 90 American goods, ranging from toilet paper to California apricots. That's expected to gouge about $2.5 billion from the $350 billion in annual trade between the two countries.
But even as trade tensions escalate, American interests on both sides of the issue seem as entrenched as ever. It all puzzles J.B. Manson, a produce broker who chairs the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority. He says exports have decreased since Mexico enacted the retaliatory tariffs. "It has affected a lot of the apple production that goes into Mexico, and a lot of the grape production, too."
That worries Manson and other Nogales brokers who view the long-running truck impasse with dismay, and consider the safety issue overblown. "Almost every Mexican truck is inspected at the border," he says. "It's my understanding that there are now more inspections of Mexican carriers than there are on U.S. carriers. So I don't really see a safety concern."
The consequences of side-stepping this trade component are also feared at the Washington, D.C., offices of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "If the United States is going to be remain a highly respected trading partner, we're going to have to live up to our trade obligations," says U.S. Chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder. "That's certainly something we're not doing by failing to implement this program."
Despite a perennial congressional stalemate over the NAFTA provision, "there is a broad swath of American businesses that want this measure, because they recognize that it will drive down tariffs—and drive down costs," says Fielder. "It will increase trade, thus increasing jobs. In just the last couple of hours alone, Americans lost 125,000 more jobs. That's certainly a top priority in this building."
But Fielder has it backward, according to Teamsters spokeswoman Leslie Miller. She and other NAFTA critics say the trade agreement has already cost Americans thousands of jobs, as companies are drawn south by Mexico's far-cheaper labor costs. Allowing domestic competition from Mexican drivers could add insult to injury.
"We oppose NAFTA," she says. "We oppose bilateral trade agreements that don't protect American workers. We view them just as giveaways to multinational (corporations). They're not even really trade agreements; they're investment agreements that benefit big companies.
"That's what NAFTA did. I can't tell you how many Teamster plants were shut down. There's a Whirlpool factory in Indiana that just shut down last month and went to Mexico."
Though there might be plenty of reasons to oppose NAFTA's Mexican-truck provision, adversaries such as the Teamsters have gained the most mileage by questioning the trucks' safety.
Miller argues that those concerns are real. "We've been saying pretty much the same thing all along, which is that the Mexican government doesn't hold its drivers or trucks to the same safety standards that the United States does. Letting the trucks in before the Mexican government upholds its part of the bargain would undermine highway safety."
For instance, she says Mexican authorities don't effectively monitor how many hours its truckers are behind the wheel at a single stretch. "So drivers come to the border, and nobody has a clue how long they've been driving. And the Mexican trucks don't have to have multi-lock brakes, either."
However, studies from the pilot program during the George W. Bush administration showed the trucks to be as safe, if not safer, than their American counterparts. Another study from a more recent pilot program basically reveals the same thing.
To supporters of this NAFTA provision, this data is the bottom line. "There is no record of any safety issues during that brief (pilot program) in 2007 and 2008," says Fielder. "Many would say that the program went through flawlessly. So if the Teamsters want to point to the safety issue, we want to see some data to back that up."
Meanwhile, down at the Mariposa Port, Manson isn't holding his breath that this enduring conflict will be resolved anytime soon. Still, at the end of the day, he says, politics shouldn't dictate the lifeblood of this busy trade center on the Mexican border.
"The United States just needs to comply with this portion of NAFTA," he says. "So far, it has not."