NAFTA's 1st day produces no big change at border

January 04, 1994|By New York Times News Service

OTAY MESA, CALIF — OTAY MESA, Calif. -- He was only dimly aware of it, but Tomas Estrada helped make trade history yesterday.

The young truck driver from Tijuana, Mexico, wheeled up to the U.S. Customs dock here with a white truck full of 6,368 women's blouses, 1,657 pairs of pants, 3,910 shorts and 3,974 girls' headbands -- all assembled in Mexico and destined for Los Angeles.

They were among the first cargoes to enter the United States at reduced tariffs under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But if anyone expected a rush to take advantage of the new, reduced duties, that didn't happen. With most manufacturers just reopening after the holidays, there was little ready to be shipped. And experts predicted that the free-trade accord would not produce sudden changes.

Trade was liberalized over the last six years, and red tape already was reduced by other means, said Liliana Ferrer, consul for economic affairs and special assistant to the Consul General of Mexico in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, the first business day after the agreement formally went into effect Jan. 1 marked a milestone for relations between the United States and Mexico.

Critics say it will destroy U.S. jobs and the environment, but backers hail it as a great experiment that will prove an economic boon for Mexico, the United States and Canada.

The port in Otay Mesa, on a sunny dusty mesa 23 miles east of San Diego, is normally the second-busiest commercial port of entry on the Mexican border after Laredo, Texas. An average of )) 1,033 trucks enter it every day laden with fresh vegetables, textiles and electronic components made or assembled in Mexico.

It was equally slow eight miles west in Tijuana, the Mexican port of entry for exports from the United States.

Under the trade agreement, Mexican tariffs, which have ranged from about 5 percent to 20 percent on 4,500 U.S.-made goods are eliminated immediately; others are to be reduced gradually until nearly all trade barriers come down by the year 2004. Similarly, the lower U.S. duties on Mexican goods like textiles and apparel will be cut or eliminated.

The warming of trade relations is welcomed here on both sides of the border, although tensions remain high over the current crackdown by the United States on illegal immigration.

Even as trade barriers came down, U.S. authorities were raising barriers against illegal aliens along the Mexican border from Texas to California. They were erecting a 10-foot iron fence for 14 miles along Tijuana.

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