BROWNSVILLE, RGV – It was tough to hear Donald Trump, on the campaign trail last year, talk about NAFTA being the worst trade deal ever, acknowledges Tiffany Melvin, president of NASCO.

Melvin spoke about some of the benefits the North American Free Trade Agreement has provided at a luncheon hosted Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority. It was held Monday at Rancho Viejo Country Club in Brownsville.

“NAFTA is the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere, but certainly ever signed in this country,” Trump said, during one of his presidential debates with Hillary Clinton last Fall.

Asked if such comments made her job harder, Melvin, president of the North American Strategy for Competitiveness (NASC) told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“It is tough to hear that but NASCO is not tied to NAFTA. I have always felt that what one president in particular is saying, or one prime minister, that our organization is so-grassroots focused that we can keep North American going despite what is happening at the federal level.

Tiffany Melvin

“Usually the pendulum does swing. If bad choices are made over the next four years, it will be very obvious and it is likely we will have a different president in four years and the pendulum will swing back.

“So, as long as NASCO stays true to our original mission, which is to keep North Americans talking and communicating, informing them, keeping North America top of mind to the best of our ability with elected officials, both locally and federally, then I think we will be in pretty good shape.”

In her remarks at the luncheon, Melvin said NAFTA is something that shouldn’t be scrapped but could be modernized.

Dallas-based Melvin paid her first visit to the Rio Grande Valley partly to discuss NAFTA and supply chain issues, but also to grow her group’s profile in the region.

The NASCO organization has been around for about 24 years, but at the beginning it started as an I-35 portal, focusing on the Texas highway and the trucking industry. Things have changed a lot, Melvin said, so in 2004 the organization went continental and nowadays its focus is not only I-35 anymore. Another difference is that its members come from the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

“We are a tri-national grassroots membership-based organization. We focus on the supply chain of logistics, energy in the environment, and closing the skills workforce gap in North America,” Melvin said. “We have a North American umbrella for everything we do, and we do get Canada’s and Mexico’s perspective in all we do.”

NASCO also gets involved in local and higher level projects, Melvin said, and as a coalition it has government, businesses and educational institutions as members, always focusing on competitiveness of North America supply chain.

“We have an amazing mix of industry that’s ready to work for North America and provide feedback in what we do, so we can provide input in the federal government based on which issues they have at the time,” Melvin said. “We consider ourselves the North American Neighborhood Association. We are connecting our members to ideas and research.”

Melvin made a special reference when talking about the I-35 and the I-69 Corridor.

“It has never been my opinion to see I-35 and the I-69 Corridor as a competition,” she expressed. “I feel there’s plenty trade to go around. Trade is going to go where it needs to go.”

She added that there’s plenty of reasons why I-69 needs to be completed, and clarified that NASCO has been supportive of I-69 from the time she took over as the group’s president.

When talking about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) one thing that NASCO does is keep its members up to date about what’s going on at the federal level.

“We recognize that many people don’t recognize there are a lot persons out there that don’t understand the importance of trade in their daily lives. They don’t understand the possibilities in the marketplace, its impact by international trade, and trade agreements,” she said.

Melvin explained how everything people use in their everyday life got shipped on a truck, train, ship or plane.

“Sometimes facts don’t matter anymore so it’s very frustrating because we are showing statistics on how NAFTA has been a huge success,” Melvin said. “Like in the supply chain, we are advocates for all sort of things, and we even like to roll our sleeves and get dirty and try things out.”

Other things NASCO supports are pilot projects for technology-based solutions, and they do care about green lanes and pre-clearance of cargo.

Melvin said that rather scraping things in NAFTA, maybe some new steps are needed in certain areas, or some successful pilot programs could now be implemented.

“So instead of scrapping those, maybe we can add this, something that is less expensive and shorter to implement,” she explained.

NASCO members are part of the NAFTA Task Force, Melvin explained. She said this is where they network information about the needs, requirements, and concerns of members, and what they see as a priority in the system, including making recommendations to the federal government.

Some NASCO members complain about employees not getting enough skills for today’s technological age, Melvin said.

“When we talk about closing the workforce gap, we refer to the gap in the entry and middle levels. The need of connecting future leaders,” she said.

An idea from NASCO is to have a training manufacturing skills program between countries, or inside each country, so when a worker moves from one company to another, they can have their credits respected and valued.

Single Window

Melvin also explained the Ventanilla Unica system (Single Window) which allows different customs agencies to clear goods and allow them to cross international borders.

“Not many (agencies) communicate with technology. So, when you are an importer and exporter, and you want to move a good across an international border you have to go to multiple locations and show the exact same information over and over again,” Melvin said. “It’s a waste of time, it’s a huge burden on the employees, and money.”

Mexico is very good with his Single Window program, but she said the U.S. still plenty to do.

“The Single Window is one portal where you can go as a company and show all the information about your products, and have them communicate to different agencies, within a timeframe in which you can respond if there’s an error or the agencies let you know if everything is fine,” she said.

Whereas, Melvin explained, the North American supply chain is very integrated.

“We feel at NASCO that, sure, you can work at your own individual single window but ultimately there should be a North American single window,” Melvin expressed.

For NASCO the feedback from industries is very important, because it provides fresh perspectives from companies of all size. Also, even when there’s a huge problem, NASCO tries to solve it and move forward.

“We were used to do things as a region, but now we do things as freight corridors to keep our supply chain,” she added. “NASCO doesn’t solve all the problems, but we work with many organizations, we do personal campaigns, and we work with binational organizations.”

In her opinion, whatever happens in the next four years, even if good or bad decisions are made, NASCO will be around. “We value North America and everybody’s input.”

As an end note, Melvin said the NASCO’s annual conference will be celebrated in Monterrey during October.

In an interview after her speech, Melvin was asked about a comment she had made that the Trump administration would likely renegotiate separate trade deals with Canada and Mexico, rather than having the three NAFTA countries at the same table.

“Most of our members would feel that NAFTA should be renegotiated with the three countries at the table. That is NASCO’s position also,” Melvin told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Asked if NASCO was so broad a grassroots group that it could not take a policy position without upsetting some members, if, for example, members on the Mexico border had a different position on an issue than members on the Canadian border, Melvin said:

“What we do best is connect people, give them information, get their feedback up the channels. I cannot guarantee to anyone that we can save the world but we can try. I think saving the world is connecting people and letting somebody in Mexico meet somebody in the U.S. and start doing business together, or helping a training program get into Chicago that wasn’t there before, so people have some jobs that they didn’t have before. For me, those are the great success stories, the grassroots stuff that we do.

“We, of course, advocate for things and want to be involved in the NAFTA renegotiation discussion. To let our members concerns float up. But I am not saying we are going to be invited to sit at the table to have those discussions. It is more of a general effort to make sure that we are using every connection we have to help our members’ voices be heard.”