Renegotiating NAFTA provides an opportunity to make needed reforms
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As the new administration and the 115th Congress begin their work, few issues loom as large at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) renegotiation.

If addressed with a bold and visionary spirit, NAFTA 2.0 could be modernized and strengthened, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in our continent.

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NAFTA remains a potent economic engine not only for those of us who live and work on the border but the same is true for communities across our nation. It’s been 23 years since NAFTA was ratified. In that time, trade with Mexico grew from about $150 billion to over $675 billion today.

Approximately five million Americans owe their livelihood to Mexican trade. There are more than 30 U.S. States in which more than 50,000 jobs are directly tied to Mexican commerce. For example, 31 percent of Michigan’s overall trade is conducted with our southern neighbor, a percentage comparable to Texas and Arizona. 138,000 jobs in Michigan are reliant on Mexican trade.

The truth is that change is coming to NAFTA, and for those of us who live and work along the border, NAFTA 2.0 is a chance to advocate for policy changes that can have a significant, positive impact on the border.

There are at least five ways in which NAFTA can be modernized and improved. Revising the Agreement to include energy is a sound starting point. Imagine a “North American Energy Union” between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. In 2013, the Mexican constitution was amended to allow foreign investment in oil and natural gas exploration. Beyond traditional sources of energy, renewables hold much promise and were a nascent sector in 1994. Solar, wind and geothermal trilateral accords should be pursued. A modernized North American energy grid should also be considered so that low energy costs to industry and consumers could place the region at a significant economic advantage over Asia, Europe and other parts of the world.

Second, infrastructure investments and improvements would not only speed the delivery of goods and diminish border crossing lines, but it would also ensure a more secure border. By combining technology and capital, perhaps through public-private partnerships, we could optimize processes which would make North America the most globally competitive region in the world.

Third, significant improvements can be made to the environmental side agreement in NAFTA. Again, many advances were made in the past two decades regarding water conservation, air pollution reduction, and disease-related environmental research. The best ideas incubated in universities, national labs, and small business could become commercialized while improving North America’s quality of life.

Fourth, it’s time that labor issues be revisited, including addressing documented and undocumented immigration once and for all. Surely, there would be a great deal of give and take, but it’s best to address immigration in trilateral talks rather than pursuing the issue in a xenophobic vacuum. Security is a crucial matter that all three countries share. Why shouldn’t all three nations seriously discuss mutual threats, including those coming from terrorist groups abroad? Why not enter into an accord with Mexico to identify ways it can secure its own southern border, where many of the undocumented immigrants first make their journey northward? Why not use technology to improve the TN visa program to allow for an orderly and secure flow of labor?

Indeed, a final point involves technology and telecommunication. Of course, the world is much different today. E-commerce didn’t exist in 1994, and the internet was in its infancy. It is time to examine how technological advances could positively affect job growth and ease commerce bottlenecks like endless border crossing lines and product shipment delays. Small businesses and start-ups could be assisted by lowering barriers associated with e-commerce.

NAFTA 2.0 holds much promise. Certainly, there are other ideas to emerge as NAFTA renegotiation evolves. It’s a unique occasion to be bold and visionary and create hope, opportunity, and jobs on our continent. The process won’t be easy, but the results could be phenomenal.

Jon Barela is the Chief Executive Officer of The Borderplex Alliance, a regional nonprofit organization that promotes economic development and prosperity in Cd Juárez, El Paso, & southern New Mexico. He is also the former Economic Development Cabinet Secretary for New Mexico.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.