When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, an important provision was left unfulfilled. Under NAFTA, the U.S. and Mexican governments agreed to give trucks from each country equal access to deliver goods in the neighboring country and return home with new goods. However, American labor unions, environmentalists, and other activists objected to this provision, citing safety issues, environmental risks, and threats to American jobs. In 1995, the Clinton administration banned Mexican trucks outside of a 20-mile commercial zone north of the border on the grounds that Mexican trucks did not conform to U.S. safety standards. Concerns about U.S. schoolchildren being run over by Mexican trucks filled the airwaves.
Mexico appealed to a NAFTA panel in 1995 that the United States was in violation of its NAFTA commitments. That panel ruled in Mexico’s favor in 2001. With the George W. Bush administration being strongly supportive of free trade and NAFTA, the White House was willing to lift the ban and comply with the panel’s findings. Preemptively, the U.S. Senate voted to impose tough safety inspections on Mexican trucks at the border, generally more stringent than those required for Canadian trucks. Undaunted, in 2002, President Bush ordered the border opened to Mexican trucking, but the implementation of his decision became tied-up in court procedures brought by opponents. A 2003 ruling by the California Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals mandated an environmental impact study. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, overturned the lower court’s decision, finding that the president had the power to open U.S. borders to Mexican trucks.
Yet the Bush administration still faced heated opposition on the issue from numerous groups. Some opponents of the plan accused the Bush administration of planning the construction of a ‘‘North American Super Highway’’ that would be filled with Mexican trucks bringing cheaper Asian imports into the country from Mexican ports. Opposition became very heated in 2006 and 2007 as some claimed that any Mexican trucks pilot program was a component of a larger political integration plan to take NAFTA further and create a North American Union.
In September 2007, a one-year pilot program, which was later extended for an additional two years, was announced. This program provided for up to 100 Mexican trucking companies approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation to operate on U.S. highways. American truckers were allowed to operate anywhere within Mexico. Proponents of the program argued that the plan would improve efficiency at the border crossings, eliminate the requirements for changing trucks within the commercial zone, and result in reduced prices for consumers.
Even though the pilot program found no significant safety issues, opposition to Mexican trucks operating in the United States remained. In March 2009, President Obama signed an omnibus spending bill that ended funding for the pilot program after Congress continued to express safety concerns. In retaliation, the government of Mexico imposed $2.4 billion in tariffs on 89 U.S. products entering Mexico, claiming that the United States’ ending of the pilot program ‘‘is not, and never has been, about the safety of American roads. It is about protectionism plain and simple.’’
U.S. companies including Procter & Gamble, Mary Kay Cosmetics, Caterpillar, Smithfield Foods, and PepsiCo quickly organized to fight the tariffs. The Alliance to Keep U.S. Jobs pressed President Obama to end the standoff with Mexico. In an April 2009 meeting with President Calderón of Mexico, Obama promised that he would work to resolve the crisis, stating, ‘‘The last thing we want to do at a time when the global economy is contracting and trade is shrinking is to resort to protectionist measures.’’ In a later meeting in August 2009, the two leaders again addressed the issue as Calderón told Obama that the dispute has hurt trade and jobs and raised consumer costs. Obama promised to find a solution and resolve the dispute. By March of 2010, the U.S. Congress had still not passed legislation to resolve the dispute.
Sources: Philip Shenon, ‘‘Senate Backs Strict Safety Tests for Mexican Trucks in U.S.,’’ New York Times, July 27, 2001; Gretel C. Kovach, ‘‘For Mexican Trucks, a Road into the U.S.,’’ New York Times, September 9, 2007; Nicholas Johnston and Jens Erik Gould, ‘‘Obama Promises Solution to U.S.-Mexico Trucking Spat (Update1),’’ Bloomberg.net, August 10, 2009; David Alexander, Adriana Barrera, Mica Rosenberg, and Xavier Briand, ‘‘Obama Hopeful of Fixing Truck Dispute with Mexico,’’ Reuters, April 17, 2009.