The North American Free Labor Agreement could be a possible title for a solution to the "immigration problem" in the US.

Here's what I was thinking: suppose that we negotiated an agreement among the NAFTA partners, Canada, the US, and Mexico, that extended the free trade zone to be a free labor zone. What would happen?

I'm basing this idea on similar agreements among the countries in the European Union. As I imagine it, negotiations would create a system that would allow properly identified citizens of any of the NAFLA countries to live and work in any of the others. Within certain limits, they would have all of the rights regarding residence and employment enjoyed by the citizens of the host country, as well as the right to travel freely back and forth across the various borders.

Let me mention some of the limits that would be present. First, convicted felons would not have the same degree of freedom as other individuals, and in fact, member nations could require such individuals to go through the same work permit process required for citizens of non-NAFLA nations. Second, certain jobs deemed critical to the nation(s) could be restricted to citizens of the host country with exceptions granted on a case-to-case basis. For example, jobs in the defense industry that required a security clearance would probably remain inaccessible to all but a very few foreign nationals. Third, communities could open their local elections to foreign nationals residing there, but state and federal elections would probably remain limited to citizens of the host country. In other words, it makes sense for all of the residents in a community to have a say regarding community services, schools, local surtaxes, and the like, but not for foreign citizens to be involved in decisions regarding state or national laws or policies. Another issue is social welfare. If you work or have recently worked for a significant period of time in the host country, or are the spouse, child, or dependent parent or sibling of someone who does or has, then under NAFLA, you would qualify for social welfare just like host-country citizens. However, if you aren't a worker or in the immediate family of one, then you do not qualify, unless a local jurisdiction allows it. And there are probably other similar limits on non-citizen workers that would all be decided during the treaty negotiations.

As for the process that would result from this, all of the member nations would issue ID cards and other documentation that would, as a matter of law, be recognized by all governments and employers in the other nations. It would probably be necessary to adjust the laws of each country to accomodate this, or to spell out rules to make up for mismatches. For example, employers in the US would be required to provide healthcare coverage comparable to that provided by the Canadian and Mexican governments (or to switch to a single-payer government-administered system, which is unlikely). Retirement or social-security type plans would have to be aligned, and laws regarding the pay-out of funds accrued to individuals residing in another NAFLA member would need to be passed. Rules regarding the length of the workweek, vacations, and other benefits would need to be discussed as part of the treaty negotiations, as would the details of rules regarding social welfare. When mismatches remained, they would have to be well publicized to reduce misunderstanding on the part of workers. This is not to underemphasize the difficulty of these negotiations, they would be lengthy and hard. Compromise would be necessary, and the end result would not please everyone. Still I think that a successful NAFLA treaty that would be acceptable to the NAFTA nations is at least theoretically possible.

So, what would happen if such a treaty could be constructed?

First, in the current immigration debate, the presence of undocumented workers is muddying the water. Apparently, about 10% of all Mexican nationals currently live in the US, most of them without papers. Under NAFLA, all of these individuals would have the same legal relationship to their employers and to the host governments as citizens. For example, they could be issued US Social Security numbers and have ordinary SS acounts; they could receive provincial health care cards in Canada; they could get Mexican drivers licenses, and so on. Taxes would be assessed on them just as for local citizens. They would have the same rights and obligations under the civil and criminal justice system as citizens. One effect of this would be to increase the number of taxpayers in the US to the tune of many millions. There would no longer be a sizable immigration problem here, but there would be a considerable flow of people back and forth. But it is very unlikely that the flow would be larger into the US than it is now, because of the limitations imposed by the treaty. In other words, it is only a free labor agreement, not a new nationality. There would be new administrative burdens, but there would also be new tax revenues and a more vibrant economy to help support them. Many of the security concerns regarding the leaky border would be eliminated because of the requirement for valid, secure identification of individuals who cross the border. In fact, anyone who crossed illegally would either be an idiot or some kind of criminal. The job of patrolling the border for criminal or hostile activity would be made much easier because the current noise factor created by illegal but harmless individuals who are merely seeking work would no longer be a factor.

Second, because of the open border, I believe that the issue of "a path to American citizenship" would become largely irrelevant, because I don't think that the majority of Mexicans would continue to want American citizenship. Given free passage back and forth between the two countries and full rights to live and work on either side, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans will decide to retain their citizenship, to maintain their familial and cultural relationships, and their identities as Mexicans. In short, the intense economic pressure for Mexicans to become American citizens would disappear. It is true that children born and raised in a host country should have the right to choose citizenship there when the reach their majority; this is currently the case and should not be changed. But absent any legal or economic incentive, it seems unlikely to me that the parents would become citizens, and it also seems likely to me that their children will be more likely to claim Mexican rather than American citizenship when they reach adulthood than under our current system of vicious inequity.

If we could somehow shift the energy currently being poured into debates about the dangers of "illegal immigration" and even the "browning" of America into active negotiations targeting a free labor agreement among the NAFTA partners, I believe that we could accomplish something that would increase security in all three countries, improve all three economies, and be a stabilizing influence throughout the hemisphere and the world.

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