This story originally appeared on WNYC’s It’s A Free Country.
The Republican presidential candidates have been unusually quiet on President Barack Obama’s decision to lift the 17 year ban on Mexican commercial trucks entering the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite objections from Republican and Democratic congressmen and the powerful Teamsters Union.
The first truck crossed the border last week. The issue may be a non-issue in the presidential campaign as all candidates in the race claim support for free trade agreements. However allowing trucking between the countries and Mexican drivers to enter the United States touches on immigration, the fear of people entering the United States illegally and the threat some Americans, including those in unions, claim that immigration poses to American workers.
The emotions that the decision is invoking pits two key sections of the Republican party against each other – the pro-business movement, which sees a move like this as a cut in costs, and the hardliners who are advocating higher walls and more security around the border to limit any opportunity for people to enter the United States illegally.
The emotional and inflammatory language around the issue is best seen in a commentary by James Hoffa, the head of the Teamsters Union, said that Mexican trucks were being “unleashed” in the United States. His language was more suited to describe a mass contagion rather than a trade agreement.
The issue of trucking also shows the dilemma that Republican candidates are placed in when trying to balance “strong” or “anti” immigration views with the calls for greater freedom and movement between countries as part of trade and business agreements.
It’s a Free Country attempted to contact the Republican presidential campaigns of Rick Perry and Mitt Romney on this issue and received no response. Not speaking about it, though, is unlikely to make the issue go away as the Teamsters and the other labor groups have promised to pursue the issue and continue to fight for a ban.
Detractors say the trucks are not safe to enter the United States, but these claims are difficult to substantiate since Mexican truckers are certified by the Department of Homeland Security. The larger, unstated fear is that there’s a growing segment of the American population that is uncomfortable and against Mexicans or other foreigners freely entering and moving about the United States. Despite being a country that has claimed an openness to immigration, the U.S. has a long history of xenophobia and it’s head is rearing in the debates around this issue.
The fears around NAFTA and greater relationships and movement between North American countries is most comically illustrated by Ron Paul’s campaign, which claims that a superhighway is being built between Canada, the United States and Mexico that will dissolve the borders between the three countries.
But as articles in the New York Times have pointed out, Republican candidates have a difficult dance to perform on the issue, on one side needing to understand the demographic changes in the United States that show a growing Latino vote while keeping a core, conservative base strongly against new immigration happy on the issue. And then there’s the business interests.
The United States Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups are for greater relationships and freedom of movement, and have fought a long battle to lift the ban on Mexican trucks entering the country. The NAFTA agreement between Mexico and the U.S. was signed in 1994, and trucks were supposed to start moving across the border a year later, but political opponents were able to prevent it from happening until last week.
A happy medium may not exist, and the candidates who are keeping mum at some point will have to answer questions about their opinion of the program. As Gov. Rick Perry quickly found out, when he expressed support for a Texas law that allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates, expressing any kind of support for helping immigrants could have a strong backlash in the national purview. Perry has advocated in the past for freer trade between Mexico and the U.S., will he dare to support the trucks? Once the candidates do speak up, what will their constituencies think of their stance?
Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.