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Trade pact kills immigrant dreams Unemployment: The North American Free Trade Agreement has put thousands of U.S. workers out of work along the border with Mexico, most of them low-skilled, middle-aged Mexican-Americans who speak little English.


EL PASO, Texas -- Celia Rodriguez came to the United States more than 30 years ago from Mexico. For most of that time, she lived out the immigrant's dream. She advanced through several jobs in clothing factories and became an inspector. She married, raised a family and became a citizen.

The dream soured in 1996 when, responding to the incentives of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the garment industry fled this west-Texas border town. Rodriguez lost her job. Though she has gone through a federal retraining program and is still job-hunting, she hasn't worked since.

"I worked for 30 years in the factories. I made good money, but I also worked a lot. I worked from 7 in the morning often until 9 or 10 at night," says Rodriguez, now 48 and the mother of a 10-year-old son. "Now, I can't find work because of the requirements that [employers] are asking for." She speaks English only haltingly and lacks a high school degree.

Most economists agree that NAFTA, the free-trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada, is a net benefit to all three countries -- but not to all workers.

Thousands like Rodriguez in less-skilled manufacturing industries have lost jobs -- 10,000 in El Paso alone, according to the Department of Labor.

The pattern by which new immigrants gain a foothold in factory work, educating themselves and their children to move on to better lives, goes back generations in the United States.

Latinos hurt the most

But those low-skill, foothold industries have been the biggest casualties of NAFTA. Ironically, therefore, those hardest hit by free trade with Mexico are themselves Latino immigrants.

In the border states, Latinos have suffered manufacturing job losses far out of proportion with their overall numbers in the work force, according to a 1997 study by the North American Integration and Development Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.

In Texas, nearly half of all manufacturing jobs lost to the new NAFTA economy were held by Latinos, though they represented only about a quarter of the manufacturing work force.

Until NAFTA, El Paso's economy was based on industries that depended on cheap labor from recent immigrants. Levi Strauss & Co. had its major U.S. production center here. Dozens of other clothing manufacturers set up sewing and assembly plants.

But rows of empty warehouses along the U.S. side of the Rio Grande testify to the gutting of that industry, which left almost wholesale after 1994.

In the city's south-side barrio, home to many of those who lost their jobs, the idle sit on shady verandas or lean against graffiti-covered walls. A recent survey by the city found that a swath of central El Paso, encompassing most of downtown and the heart of the old garment district, has a poverty rate above 60 percent.

Millions of dollars in federal funds flowed into El Paso after the factories began to leave, under the federal trade adjustment assistance program, which was approved along with NAFTA to help ease the effect of job losses.

Wrong training

The training that money bought was largely ineffective, city officials say. "These programs were designed pretty much for the displaced workers of the rust belt," says Victor Grado, of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. "The profile of the typical displaced worker in El Paso is very different from the one in Ohio."

Much of the job training was only in English, so many of the workers instead took language classes, and those turned out to be badly suited to both adult students and the workplace.

"I studied English for 13 weeks," says Atanasio Herrera, who lost his factory job two years ago. "The courses weren't for basic English. The books they gave us were for 12th grade. I hate to admit it, but the little English I learned, I've already forgotten."

El Paso has attracted some component producers for the booming assembly plants across the border in Ciudad Juarez and telemarketing firms that want to take advantage of El Paso's bilingual work force.

Development officials hope to turn the city into a regional medical center that will attract Mexicans coming to the United States for advanced care.

City officials are finding, though, that such jobs aren't interchangeable for the ones that were lost.

The new employers require a more skilled work force, and two of every five adult workers here lack the equivalent of a high school degree. So despite the fact that new and existing companies created 6,000 jobs here in the last year, the city's unemployment rate is still above 10 percent.

Hoping to correct the failures of the first round of retraining, the Department of Labor has granted El Paso $45 million for a new start. Language and vocational programs will be integrated, and the type of training will be determined by potential employers who promise to give workers jobs.

City officials say El Paso got the money, the largest grant of its kind, because the problems it confronts are likely to recur elsewhere as the global economy grows, especially in other parts of the southwest and in Florida, which have big immigrant populations in more direct competition with the workers of low-wage economies.

Too old for new jobs

But the new approach may not be enough.

"Employers tell us that if these workers don't have 10 years of productive life left, they're not going to get hired no matter what the training," says Cindy Arnold, program director for La Mujer Obrera, an advocacy group whose members are mostly displaced women workers.

Arnold's group will get part of the money from the Labor Department to implement what it sees as the only alternative for many of these aging workers: creation their own businesses.

They have hired a small-business expert and turned an abandoned warehouse into an incubator where fledgling businesses can get their start. A loan fund will supply credit. The warehouse will provide office space and phone lines, rent-free, and sponsor a daily open market to sell goods.

Still, the Mujer Obrera program will be able to handle only 20 to 25 adult students during its first semester and about 80 after that, a tiny percentage of the workers who remain jobless.

Despite the new initiatives, there is still a lot of despair as El Paso tries to rebuild itself and its workers in a post-NAFTA economy.

"Two years from now, what are we going to do if there's still no work," says Rodriguez, the former garment-factory worker. "It's difficult to start over again. When you're young, it's easy. But when you reach my age, it gets a lot harder."

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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