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Hot on the heels of the current caravan of Central Americans heading through Mexico to the U.S. border, another such procession is gathering in Guatemala. And these two have followed the flood of unaccompanied migrant children from the area that reached the United States in 2014.

I wish I could tell you that there’s a silver bullet for solving the problem – though nothing could be clearer than that these human tides will keep organizing in even greater numbers if Washington follows the general advice of the Open Borders lobby to view all of the caravan-ers as legitimate asylum-seekers entitled to full due process once they reach the border and request this status. Upon which time current procedures call for recording their claims and then releasing them based on the ludicrous assumption that they’ll report back to immigration court on the appointed date and risk being rejected and thus deported.

What I can tell you is that this crisis has been greatly aggravated by an unforgivably short-sighted U.S. trade policy strategy that emerged in the 1990s. It consisted of indiscriminately liberalizing trade with developing countries, and thereby ignoring the case for targeting trade diplomacy to ensure that countries and regions of greatest importance to the United States receive the lion’s share of the benefits. And the prime victims of this strategic failure – which mainly reflected the determination of offshoring multinational manufacturers and Big Box retailers to gain maximum flexibility to source imported inputs and final products – were the poorer countries of the Western Hemisphere. That group of course includes Mexico and the Central American countries that have sent so many migrants northward.

Interestingly, Central America and the Caribbean countries were placed prominently in line to receive significant shares of the vast U.S. market by a Reagan-era initiative aimed mainly at stemming the spread of left-wing revolutionary forces in the region. But scant years later, any hopes generated by this strategy for fostering more prosperity in these impoverished regions and strengthening the appeal of pro-Western leaders were kneecapped by two big decisions.

The first was the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993. The second was the phase out of U.S. and other developed countries’ quotas on apparel imports that was approved the following year as part of the Uruguay Round global agreement that reduced various trade barriers worldwide and created the World Trade Organization (WTO). And the third was the Clinton administration’s subsequent rush to liberalize trade with a host of low-income countries outside the Western Hemisphere.

In principle NAFTA’s tight focus on Mexico was justifiable given Mexico’s size, position as a U.S. neighbor, and history of political, economic, and social policy failure that seemed to be reaching a crisis point. But economic growth and employment could still have been greatly lifted in Mexico and Central American (along with the Caribbean countries) had American trade liberalization stopped or at least paused there.

Yet the quota phaseout forbade Washington from incorporating any strategic or non-economic considerations into apparel trade policy, whether conditions urgently required them or not.  As a result, it ensured that the benefits of freer trade would be greatly watered down (and many garnered by China and the rest of developing Asia in particular), and insult was added to injury by new liberalization deals reached or renewed, or decisions made, regarding Vietnam, sub-Saharan Africa, Jordan, most of developing Asia (in the form of a deal on information technology products, including labor-intensive consumer electronics), and China. Largely as a result, the poorer countries of the Western Hemisphere were left in the dust in the business models of the multinationals and the big retailers.

Nowhere does the opportunity lost by Mexico and Central America come through more clearly than in the apparel trade figures. This sector is almost always the first utilized by developing countries to begin their industrialization and modernization drives mainly because its own labor intensivity means that capital and technology requirements are pretty modest, the relevant skills can be taught fairly easily, and its job-creation promise is substantial.

Here are the figures for apparel imports from Mexico, the three “Northern Triangle” Central American countries, China, and two other current Asian textile giants (Bangladesh and Vietnam) for four key years. Next to them will be the figure for the share of American apparel consumption (market share) won at that point by each. We start with 1997 because that’s the year when the U.S. government began adopting its current dominant system for slicing and dicing trade and manufacturing data – which enables us to see statistics that are apples-to-apples. The second year is 2001 – the year China’s was admitted into the WTO – and thus gained substantial immunity from American laws aimed at curbing predatory trade practices. The third year is 2006 – when Congress approved a Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) negotiate by George W. Bush’s administration. And the fourth year is last year – the latest for which we have full-year numbers.


Mexico:                       $5.317b                    11.29 percent 

El Salvador:                 $1.052b                     2.18 percent

Guatemala:                  $0.973b                     2.07 percent

Honduras:                    $1.689b                     3.59 percent

China:                          $7.279b                   15.46 percent

Bangladesh:                 $1.442b                      3.06 percent

Vietnam:                      $0.026b                      0.06 percent


Mexico:                       $8.112b                     12.99 percent 

El Salvador:                 $1.634b                      2.62 percent

Guatemala:                  $1.630b                       2.61 percent

Honduras:                    $2.438b                       3.91 percent

China:                          $8.597b                     13.47 percent

Bangladesh:                 $2.101b                      3.37 percent

Vietnam:                      $0.048b                       0.08 percent


Mexico:                       $5.514b                       7.16 percent 

El Salvador:                 $1.408b                      1.83 percent

Guatemala:                  $1.685b                      2.19 percent

Honduras:                    $2.519b                      3.27 percent

China:                        $22.405b                    22.09 percent

Bangladesh:                 $2.915b                       3.79 percent

Vietnam:                      $3.226b                       4.19 percent


Mexico:                       $3.806b                       4.52 percent 

El Salvador:                 $1.920b                       2.28 percent

Guatemala:                  $1.371b                       1.63 percent

Honduras:                    $2.522b                       3.00 percent

China:                        $29.322b                     34.85 percent

Bangladesh:                $5.046b                       6.00 percent

Vietnam:                    $11.613b                     13.80 percent

The big takeaway? Even during the decade after the Central America free trade deal was signed, the three Northern Triangle countries actually saw their share of the U.S. apparel market stagnate or actually shrink. Mexico’s share has been cut by about almost 60 percent. And the business won by China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam has exploded – since 2001 for China, and since 2006 for the two other Asians. Again, the year that the free trade deal that was supposed to benefit El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras was inked.

With Mexico, there are of course mitigating factors. Chiefly, although its apparel competitiveness in the U.S. market is way down, its competitiveness in higher value automotive manufacturing in particular is way up. But millions of poor Mexicans still could have benefited from apparel employment, and no such progress has been made in Central America – which is partly understandable since incomes are even lower, and governments and other institutions needed for economic development are so much weaker.

Apparel should have been the great hope for these populations, but that sector’s potential for expanding production (which of course needs to be export-oriented since these countries’ domestic markets are tiny) and employment has been virtually choked off. Just as important, the prospect that apparel wages in the Northern Triangle might rise adequately has been limited, too – since pay throughout developing East and South Asia (even in China, according to the chart below) remains so much lower.


American trade policy could have lent a big helping hand to Central America had it adopted a strategically sensible set of priorities. But it failed to learn a fundamental lesson of strategy: When everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. You can see the victims of this failure in the flow of human misery heading up from the Northern Triangle.