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Workers' rights group seeks to highlight the other side of NAFTA

On Tuesday, a Central Texas-based advocacy group will celebrate the first day of the special session by highlighting the workers and migrants that have paid a heavy price since the trade agreement was signed in the 1990s.

Employees at Ana Vale Produce sort tomatoes for shipment. The produce comes from the Comarca Lagunera region of Mexico.

As the state’s business leaders vie for a seat at the table during the North American Free Trade Agreement’s upcoming renegotiation talks, another interest group is hoping there is enough room for one more point of view.

Unlike those who advocate for cheaper products and tariff-free commerce, they're speaking out for the blue-collar workers on both sides of the Rio Grande who say they have been devastated by the trade agreement.

“Our stance has been for almost 20 years that NAFTA has created an economic situation in which people are forced to leave their hometowns and their communities,” said Bianca Hinz-Foley Trejo, the program director for Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera (ATCF). 

The group has scheduled a press conference Tuesday on the south steps of the Capitol — part of a plan to use the Legislature’s special session as an opportunity to showcase the side of NAFTA that it contends has “caused mass migrations from Mexico and Central America, accelerated a global race to the bottom, and oppress[ed] both U.S. and Mexican workers.” 

The nonprofit promotes alternatives to free trade and improved conditions for workers, along with San Antonio-based La Fuerza Unida, a group of laborers and advocates that formed in the 1990s after a Levi's garment plant in San Antonio was shut down as NAFTA's start date approached. ATCF also works with Mexican groups representing factory workers in border factories, known as maquiladoras, and farmers who went bankrupt after NAFTA was signed.

The trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada displaced about 2 million small farmers in Mexico, and job creation in the country’s industrial sectors couldn’t keep pace with a population that added about 1.2 million new workers every year, according to the ATCF website.

During his campaign, President Donald Trump called NAFTA one of the worst deals in U.S. history and pledged to end the pact and reestablish the blue-collar American workforce he said NAFTA eliminated through outsourcing. He has since backed away from eliminating the United States’ participation in the agreement, but his administration is moving ahead with a renegotiation.

Though NAFTA is going to be renegotiated at the federal level, Texas’ robust trade partnership with Mexico makes the state Capitol a prime venue for NAFTA's proponents and opponents. Last month, a binational group of business leaders announced the creation of the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, a group that seeks to keep the economic gains NAFTA has created for Texas and beyond in place after the pact is reconfigured.  

NAFTA proponents argue that its benefits outweigh its limited adverse impacts. According to the Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition, Texas exported more than $93 billion in goods and services to Mexico in 2016 — 40 percent of its total exports. And a large amount of all U.S.-Mexico trade passes through Texas border crossings. 

Hinz-Foley Trejo said that even as Texas benefits from the economic effects of NAFTA, state lawmakers have targeted undocumented immigrants who came to Texas after unemployment in parts of Mexico soared because of NAFTA — by passing Senate Bill 4, a bill that cracks down on "sanctuary" cities and other jurisdictions that don't enforce federal immigration laws. 

“I think one thing that is missing is the link between NAFTA and how it has caused some of the problems that supposedly SB4 is supposed to address,” she said. 

Hinz-Foley Trejo said her group's reasons for wanting to change NAFTA are much different than the president's. 

"Our interests are to support workers on both sides of the border and not just U.S. workers," she said.

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