U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently released the official migrant numbers for July, the busiest month that the border has seen in over 20 years. With migration typically declining during the severe summer heat, the 212,000 encounters that took place last month highlighted the unprecedented situation at our southern border. In response, the Biden administration has proposed a major overhaul to our nation’s asylum system, a move that seeks to end the extensive backlog of immigration cases. While overhauling this country’s asylum system is certainly necessary, it simply addresses the symptoms of the problem rather than the main causes, one of which being the lack of opportunities in Central America that drive migrants to seek a better life in the United States. Though addressing these causes is far from simple, one straightforward way that Congress can create economic opportunities in the region is by amending CAFTA-DR.
The original goal of CAFTA-DR, which stands for the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, was to promote industry development and job creation among the partner countries by reducing tariffs and other trade barriers.
“Trade and economic growth promotes prosperity and stability and opportunities for citizens within their home country,” explains the Office of the United States Trade Representative. “A better economic environment builds communities where citizens can thrive and youth have opportunity for a productive future at home.”
However, while CAFTA-DR sought to promote prosperity, there were substantial issues with the agreement. In fact, given that many lawmakers had serious concerns regarding the economic and social disruption it might cause, CAFTA-DR only narrowly passed through the House of Representatives. In the decade and a half since CAFTA-DR’s implementation, the many flaws in this agreement have revealed themselves. To put it simply, the agreement has fallen far short of its purpose and has prevented growth across multiple sectors, from agriculture to textiles.
Prior to its enactment, many of those in favor of the agreement argued that CAFTA-DR would expand Central America’s textile manufacturing and exports. If true, this highly lucrative industry could have provided thousands of job opportunities throughout the region. However, in order for textile companies to benefit from the agreement, they must obtain or produce their products entirely in one of the partner countries, known as a “Rule of Origin” requirement. This requirement hamstrings the industry and creates serious barriers to its development in the region.
While this Rule of Origin requirement for apparel aims to protect American producers, it creates an anti-competitive market that motivates many manufacturers in the apparel industry to produce their garments in Asia instead of Central America, as the agreement intended. Luckily, Congress has the ability to update the requirements for the apparel industry through proclamation authority – without having to renegotiate the entire agreement. Given that the apparel industry has the potential to drive significant economic growth in a region that desperately needs it, particularly for women, updating CAFTA-DR is an obvious choice for our members of Congress.
Fortunately, here in the New Jersey, we have lawmakers like Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Albio Sires, who are both members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), a congressional caucus of Democrats hailing from Hispanic and Latino descent, which has expressed interest in addressing the root causes of Central American immigration to the United States, and improving conditions in the region. Given this goal, it seems only natural that members of the caucus like Representative Sires and Senator Menendez would support updating CAFTA-DR. In doing so, they would be taking a step towards creating better economic opportunities in Central America that would allow potential migrants to build productive futures at home, addressing the root cause of the mass migration we’re witnessing.
Michael Santiago is the mayor of Bridgeton.