Three of the largest economies in the Americas – the U.S., Canada, and Mexico – have a decades-old free trade arrangement. Slightly modified under the Trump administration, the deal ensures that most goods can be made in any of the three countries and sold in any of the other three countries.
Originally called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and now called USMCA, the arrangement falls short of the kind of total free trade zone that exists in Europe but ensures that the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, which are similarly-sized economies, can cooperate as much as they compete. In practice, it means a lot of things are engineered in the northern U.S. or Canada and manufactured in the southern U.S. or Mexico.
When things are manufactured in Mexico, they have to cross a national border that is unusually militarized given that, again, the U.S. and Mexico are developed countries with a free trade agreement. Mexico is not really the target of this militarization – although racist Americans sometimes say it is – but rather the less-developed global south. Republicans have repeatedly made the southern border a political issue, misrepresenting the dangers posed by immigrant workers while ignoring the fundamental issues with how they want to patrol the border.
As the Biden presidency rolls on, the southern border has become a talking point – enough so that potentially vulnerable Democrats have pushed the White House to take a harder stance on immigration. In Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott harbors transparent ambitions to run for president in 2024, the state is taking the fight to the border.
Gov. Abbott has ordered the Texas Department of Public Safety to investigate every single cargo truck crossing into the state from Mexico. Unsurprisingly, these mandatory inspections are slowing down deliveries and clogging up supply chains. The federal government hates them, truckers hate them, and businesses hate them. As the chair of the Texas Trucking Association explained to Reuters, this isn’t how migrants cross the border, because that would be insanely risky. Trucks are already subject to checks at the crossings themselves.
The Washington Post has gone so far as to suggest that the delays caused by Abbott’s mandatory inspection scheme have contributed to inflation.
Abbott has ended the inspections at two key crossings after reaching a deal with two of his counterparts in Mexico. Chihuahua Gov. María Eugenia Campos Galván and Coahulia Gov. Miguel Ángel Riquelme Solís, both members of conservative parties in Mexico, signed deals that largely don’t change the relationship between the states or impact how local officials in Chihuahua or Coahulia will enforce their laws. Instead, the agreements appear to provide a way for Abbott to end the deeply unpopular inspections without conceding that he was wrong to implement them in the first place.
Why did he implement them in the first place? Because Abbott wants to be president, and to get there he needs to rile up Republicans. He’s done some of this by implementing a directive that calls basic human rights for transgender youth “child abuse” and by pretending that climate change measures are weakening Texas’s electrical grid, both of which are absurd and – in the former’s case – deeply cruel, but which play well to the ultraconservative minority of Republican voters who command the party’s primary process.
This spring, he got to add another conservative bona fide. He “defended” the border with Mexico against migrant workers. Committed Republican voters are unlikely to blame anyone other than Biden for inflation or supply chain issues, so if Abbott exacerbates those issues, it won’t hurt his chances or the chances of any other Republican candidates in the 2024 primary.
On the other hand, Biden routinely outpolls all his potential rivals except former President Donald Trump, where polling results are more mixed. Abbott – and any other Republican – will need to make sure that Democrats and independent voters don’t know that they had a hand in making things worse during the Biden administration if they want to prevail in a general election.