EL PASO – As talks to renegotiate NAFTA began Wednesday, New Mexico border business leaders gathered here for a summit with a message for the Trump administration: Don’t turn back the clock.
“Ninety percent of what we do is focused on trade with Mexico,” said Ed Camden, president of Santa Teresa-based Southwest Steel Coil. “To say southern New Mexico is engaged with trade with Mexico is an understatement.”
Camden was one of several business leaders from New Mexico attending a two-day trade summit organized by the Borderplex Alliance, which promotes regional economic development in southern New Mexico, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The region is one of the most dynamic global trade corridors and has a lot riding on the outcome of the NAFTA renegotiation talks in Washington.
President Donald Trump has called the North American Free Trade Agreement “maybe one of the worst trade deals ever signed anywhere,” blaming cheap labor in Mexico for the loss of U.S. jobs and the $62 billion-plus trade deficit. Trump threatened to scrap the 1994 agreement and impose a border tax of as much as 20 percent on imports. Last April, he decided not to withdraw, but left the option open should talks not deliver what he deems a fair deal.
Border business leaders say the benefits of trade are often overlooked by other regions, including the Rust Belt, where voters helped Trump win the presidency.
“Mexico is an economic ally of the United States, not a foe and not a thief of U.S. jobs,” said Borderplex Alliance CEO Jon Barela, former Economic Development Cabinet Secretary for Gov. Susana Martinez.
As the three NAFTA countries of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada began what could be a long drawn-out battle to revamp the agreement, New Mexico has a lot at stake.
New Mexico’s governor is one of the defenders.
“In Santa Teresa, business is booming,” said Martinez during closing remarks at the summit. “Our state’s investments have helped it grow into one of the largest inland ports in the country – helping to grow New Mexico’s exports to Mexico, our largest trading partner by far, from less than half a billion dollars when I took office in 2011 to more than $1.5 billion last year.”
Much of the growth happened with the expansion of the Santa Teresa border crossing.
“These efforts are critical to growing and diversifying our economy,” said Martinez, whose hometown is Las Cruces. “Sometimes in New Mexico, south of Socorro isn’t always remembered. But when I became governor, I said I would never forget.”
“Probably no other state has a higher percentage of growth from trade than New Mexico,” said Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association, a nonprofit industry group in Santa Teresa.
Pacheco’s organization developed a database to help businesses in New Mexico become part of the supply chain. “I call it sprinkling the benefits of the border across the state,” Pacheco said.
Trade advocates hope NAFTA renegotiations will strengthen and modernize the agreement to include digital commerce, energy and better enforcement of rules of origin designed to ensure products are actually made in the United States, Mexico or Canada.
Camden credited trade with Mexico for helping his medium-sized, family-owned company create jobs in New Mexico, saying the company has grown to 57 employees, generating a $3 million payroll.
The challenge, Camden said, is spreading that message beyond the border, where many workers view NAFTA as a threat – a concern he once held.
Back in the 1990s when the three countries began the bruising fight to create the world’s biggest trade market, Camden, an Indiana native, worked in the steel mills in Ohio. He was so worried he campaigned for Ross Perot, the independent candidate who once warned of a giant sucking sound as jobs went south to Mexico.
Now, the former Midwesterner is living in Las Cruces and proudly buying steel from U.S. plants in the Rust Belt to export to Mexico.