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What North America’s ‘ally-shoring’ means for immigration, trade

In a new era of immigration and trade, the 2023 State of the West Symposium at Stanford addressed how geopolitics could tighten ties between U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Carlos González Gutiérrez, a senior Mexican diplomat, traveled from San Diego to the border with Mexico earlier this month. What he saw there reminded him of how much immigration has changed and how quickly.

The migrants waiting to cross into the United States came from 80 countries — evidence that the diaspora at the U.S.-Mexico border has become an international one.

There are other new developments, González Gutiérrez told an audience of government and  business leaders and academics who gathered at Stanford on May 19 for the 2023 State of the West Symposium. The annual event is jointly hosted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research (SIEPR) and the Bill Lane Center for the American West in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Mexico is “quickly becoming an immigration country,” said González Gutiérrez, the Consul General of Mexico in San Diego who spoke on a panel about the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the same time, the number of non-governmental organizations providing support for migrants is growing. And more people are dying as they try to cross into the United States.

Ana Raquel Minian, an associate professor of history in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, brought up another grim reality: Migrants are increasingly exploited and attacked during their journey to the border.

Following the insightful discussions by González Gutiérrez, Minian and other featured speakers, David Kennedy, the founding faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center, called for “some bold new thinking about this crisis.” There’s impetus for change: The United States on May 11 ended a pandemic-era policy, known as Title 42, that allowed border officials to quickly turn away asylum seekers for public health reasons. The measure’s expiration has fueled expectations of a fresh surge at the U.S.-Mexico border and renewed scrutiny on immigration policy. 

David Kennedy
David Kennedy, founding faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, calls for “bold new thinking” on immigration policies at the 2023 State of the West Symposium.

Each year, the State of the West Symposium takes a deep dive into the economic and fiscal health of the western region of North America, which is defined as the land west of the 100th meridian that splices through eastern Mexico, Texas and the Dakotas, and central Canada. This year’s event, titled “Navigating Borders in North America,” marked the 10th symposium — a milestone that Ken Salazar, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, hailed in a videotaped address to this year’s attendees.

“Through all of your efforts,” Salazar said, referring to SIEPR and to the Bill Lane Center, “you’ve helped deepen personal ties and strengthen regional relationships by making sure people understand each other.” His sentiments were echoed by Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, the Mexico ambassador to the United States, in a separate videotaped speech. 

View recordings of the panel sessions and keynote by Calixto Mateos Hanel here, or from the list below.

Calixto Hanel
Calixto Mateos Hanel of the North American Development Bank discusses important investments in water projects and other infrastructure during his keynote speech at the State of the West Symposium.

From ‘reshoring’ to ‘ally-shoring’ in trade deals

Salazar called this a “transformational time” for North America. The U.S.-Mexico border crisis is one reason why. Another is purely economic, exacerbated by tensions with China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and supply chain disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A separate panel session at the symposium focused on North America’s changing economic ties. Mexico and Canada combined outstrip China as the largest U.S. export market. In 2020, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Among other provisions absent in NAFTA, the new agreement made it easier for U.S. companies to challenge unfair labor practices in Mexico. It is also subject to review every six years. If any party to the agreement wants out, the deal expires 10 years later.

“We’ve learned that many issues can’t be resolved by countries acting alone,” said Perrin Beatty, a former Canadian legislator who is now CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, referring to climate change, pandemics, global security, migration, and food security. “The simple fact is that globalization — as we had come to know it during the 80s and 90s, the early part of the 21st century — is a thing of the past. We’re seeing increasingly that political factors and political alliances are reshaping the nature of the global economy.”

In practice, that reshaping can be seen in newer trade agreements like the USMCA.

Where trade deals used to be about reducing tariffs, today’s agreements have more to do with strengthening ties among countries — nations that are politically aligned and can work together to protect their national security as well as access to food and energy supplies, said fellow panelist Gerardo Esquivel, an economics professor at El Colegio de México.

“The new name of the [trade] game is ‘near-shoring’ or ‘friend-shoring’ or ‘ally-shoring,’” said Esquivel, who recently served as deputy governor of Mexico’s central bank.

Services — namely, the flow of data — are also increasingly key to trade agreements, said Renee Bowen, an economics professor at the University of California at San Diego and a former SIEPR faculty fellow. Democracies are also more likely to enter into trade deals that have provisions for addressing climate change, workers' rights, and inequality.

“We’re beginning to see not-so-much free trade agreements, but economic arrangements [or] partnerships," Bowen said.

But carrying out economic deals based on shared democratic values could get complicated, she warned.

“The question is, how do you do them in a consistent way that does not result in protectionism?” she added. “How do you ensure that you’re upholding workers’ rights or reducing inequality without impinging on your trading partners?”

A ‘refugee crisis’ at the border

When it comes to immigration at the border and economic deals like the USMCA, one of the biggest challenges policymakers face is public opinion, the speakers agreed. Melanie Morten, a Stanford associate professor of economics and SIEPR senior fellow who moderated the USMCA session cited a 2022 Gallup Poll showing that only 61 percent of the U.S. population views foreign trade as an economic opportunity rather than a threat.

Similarly, many Americans view immigration as bad when evidence suggests otherwise, said Ran Abramitzky, the Stanford Federal Credit Union Professor of Economics and senior associate dean of the social sciences at the School of Humanities and Sciences. Abramitzky, a SIEPR senior fellow who moderated the border discussion, noted how his own research has shown that, for example, children of immigrants in the United States are more upwardly mobile than the children of U.S.-born residents.

Kennedy, who is also the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus, cited other misconceptions around immigration, including the belief the United States is the top destination for migrants (Europe is) and that people who come to the United States are looking to stay permanently.

“We have a deep national mythology about immigration to this country, and most of us have grown up having internalized that mythology,” Kennedy said.

What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, is a refugee crisis — not an immigration one.

Ben Hueso, a former California state senator, blamed U.S. and state lawmakers for wasting money on moving migrants around instead of taking meaningful action at the source, like helping to support economic growth in Latin American countries.

“The history [of immigration legislation] has largely been reactionary,” said Hueso, who now serves on the state’s Delta Stewardship Council. “How do we get good public policy? We need to make laws that are based on science, that are based on getting to the root of the problem.”

* All photos by Ryan Zhang