LAREDO, Texas — In a meeting with business and community leaders, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar made it clear the North American Free Trade Agreement will not disappear but instead be adapted to modern times.
A NAFTA roundtable discussion was held inside a warehouse at Uni-Trade Forwarding company. There, all agreed on the importance the much-maligned trade agreement represents for Laredo, Texas, and the United States in general.
During the presidential campaign last year, Donald Trump said NAFTA was the worst trade deal the United States has ever entered into. Under the agreement, a tariff-free trading bloc was established for the United States, Canada and Mexico. Border leaders disagree strongly with Trump’s assessment.
For Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, the main concern over renegotiation of NAFTA is the uncertainty and the time factor.
“We need a resolution, we need answers and we need them quick because the local economy is hurting. People are holding back investments and is affecting our economy,” Saenz said. “If NAFTA goes away, the unemployment rate will go up here.”
Saenz also asked: “What plan is there for the border in the event that NAFTA should go away? The answer is that NAFTA should not go away, we need NAFTA because we are very dependent on it.”
He added that if NAFTA does get changed, Congress and Senate members need to make sure it preserves and creates more jobs.
As host of the event, Uni-Trade’s President, Eduardo Garza, said NAFTA has been a great instrument to elevate the quality of life of Laredo residents.
“In Laredo, the private sector has made an effort to invest in development, infrastructure and logistics to make possible competition against the rest of the world,” Garza said. “We are ready to modernize NAFTA and avoid putting at risk those markets that have been conquered. We can negotiate together.”
Garza suggested federal officials also look at related issues when renegotiating NAFTA, such as Rules of Origin, because, he said, they are not strict enough right now.
Cornyn was impressed with his touring inside Uni-Trade’s warehouse. He said he noticed some items were from manufacturers in states such as Indiana, Tennessee, and Maryland, ready to be shipped to Mexico.
“What I saw helps me to explain why NAFTA it’s so important for both our countries. This isn’t just about Laredo or Texas. This is more about jobs, about economic opportunity and growth, and frankly it’s about the American Dream.”
Cornyn was very positive about recent visits to Mexico by members of the Trump cabinet. He said these secretaries and the president are considering modernizing and updating NAFTA, rather than tearing it up.
“I have been encouraged by the rhetoric and by the actions being taken so far that this will be negotiated and at the end it will come back to Congress to ask us to approve it,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said he appreciated the opportunity to talk to stakeholders because they are the people who know most about international trade. He said they can help explain the importance of NAFTA to others.
“What we need to do is educate our friends and colleagues. We have to stand up and defend the importance of trade. Because we can’t let people mislead others in the thinking of all the things or problems you experience are attributed to trade,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said the border is not a local or state issue, but one that, by definition, is an international and federal matter.
“If we see an increase in federal investment in the border we want to make sure that is a smart investment and that is an investment which could facilitate trade, and make us safer,” Cornyn concluded.
In his remarks, Rep. Cuellar talked about the importance of border communities working together. He said the starting premise should be that the Rio Grande does not divide two nations, but unites two nations.
“We understand the importance of this. Bottom line is that we are going to be fighting to make sure we modernize NAFTA and make it a 2.0, and I think that’s the direction that the administration is going,” Cuellar said.
“Laredo is a powerhouse when it comes to trade, is the number one land port. We need to make sure that this powerhouse stays in place, and the only way we can do that is making sure we modernize NAFTA. If we continue working as a team, we will be successful.”
Cuellar said his biggest fear is that if the U.S. doesn’t provide the leadership in trade, some other nation will do so.
“China and other countries will fill that hole, so we (as leaders) need to make sure we do the right thing for our country,” Cuellar said. “NAFTA allows us to compete with the rest of the world, so we need to understand what this means to us as three countries pitted together.”
Cuellar also said that alongside NAFTA, local communities also need to think about infrastructure and the men and women in law enforcement.
During the roundtable, local community and business leaders showed support for modernizing NAFTA. But they also made it clear that any renegotiation does not turn into three years of debate.