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In Mexico, 'People Do Really Want to Stay'

Population pressure, combined with the lifting of subsidies on the farm, sent rural Mexicans in search of higher wages. They moved within Mexico in vast numbers. Many crossed the border. By 2002, 14 percent of all people born in Mexican villages were living in the United States, according to J. Edward Taylor, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. Mexicans in the United States sent home nearly $17 billion in 2004, according to the Bank of Mexico.

"If you want to buy a house, you have to go to the States," Escobar said. "People go to America to make their Mexican dream come true."

NAFTA, as the politicians sold it, was supposed to make Mexican dreams attainable at home.

Mexico's government promised that the pact would add 1 million jobs a year. But jobs have been created at roughly half that rate. Mexico's economy has grown less than 3 percent a year since NAFTA. Not even a sustained expansion of 5 percent a year would have been enough to stem the surge of immigrants headed north, given the numbers of Mexicans entering the workforce, declared the 1997 Mexico-U.S. Binational Migration Study.

NAFTA did bring Mexico foreign investment. Jobs at its maquiladoras -- export factories set up in the 1960s, mostly near the border -- more than doubled from 540,000 to 1.13 million between 1993 and 2004. But in other factories, employment has slipped and average wages have dropped by 5 percent.

Economists emphasize that any assessment of NAFTA must include the financial crisis that savaged Mexico in 1994 and 1995, sowing unemployment. Some assert that without NAFTA and the exports it fueled, Mexico's recovery would have been slower. Many also say that Mexico's government squandered opportunities for growth by failing to improve highways and ports, and by leaving unchecked the monopoly power of the national telephone company, which has kept rates for Internet access and other telecommunication services high, discouraging new ventures. While Mexico has stagnated, China has exploded, capturing factory jobs.

Oddly, border enforcement may have stifled some of Mexico's gains. In a paper presented to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Raymond Robertson, an economist at Macalester College, found that Mexico's increased foreign trade has been a factor pushing wages up at home, but that has been countered by the intensification of U.S. border security, which has kept people in Mexico, leaving more workers competing for jobs and pushing wages down.

The clearest reason why Mexico has not prospered under NAFTA is found on the farm, the workplace for about one-fourth of the population.

From 1993 to 2003, exports of American agriculture to Mexico more than doubled, climbing from $3.6 billion to $7.9 billion, according to Gary C. Hufbauer and Jeffrey J. Schott in their book, "NAFTA Revisited." Over a similar period, Mexico lost nearly 2 million agricultural jobs, according to Mexico's National Employment Survey.

Mexico's agricultural exports to the United States also surged, climbing from $2.7 billion in 1993 to $6.3 billion in 2003. Huge farms have been developed to grow artichokes, tomatoes and other produce for the U.S. market. But those farms, many launched with American investment, typically pay about $13 a day. That's not enough to keep workers from leaving: They can make three to four times as much in even the lowliest U.S. jobs.

"I'm only here because someone had to stay home and take care of our mother," said Luz Maria Vazquez, 36, as she picked tomatoes in Jalisco, sporting a T-shirt from a tavern in McLean, Va. Six of her brothers and sisters were in the United States, most of them without papers, she said.

And the growth of Mexico's export farms, though good for the owners, has had a paradoxical effect on the country's markets. Produce not good enough for American stores is trucked instead to Mexican cities, sending local prices down. On a recent morning in Guadalajara, men unloaded crates of wrinkled bell peppers arriving from the northern province of Sinaloa -- rejects from the American market. Bell peppers had been selling locally for about $13 per crate. These were $10.

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