Free Trade in North America Turns 21 Years Old. Is Free Travel next?

Embracing Free Trade and Movement Would Be a Bold Step Forward

By Yaël Ossowski | PanAm Post

For outsiders who visit the European continent, they’re quite amazed at the sight of impediment-free travel between countries.

Traveling between Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and more, one can cross borders without papers and without the questioning of a border guard.


That’s the product of the Schengen Agreement, a nearly 20-year-old project which abolishes border impediments between 25 European states to ensure free movement of people, capital, and goods. This aim was supported by the various treaties in the following decades, which created the economic basis for the European Union — today the largest economy in the world.

North America has a similar regime of free trade between its countries for capital and goods, but without a guarantee of free, unrestricted travel. This needs to change.

Exactly 21 years to the day of the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on December 17, 1992, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Mexico should recognize that free movement of people is regarded as essential for the survival of the European trading bloc, and its adoption would mean the same for North America.

Grouped together, North American economies account for annual economic activity (GDP) of nearly US$17 trillion — just ahead of the European Union. Allowing Canadians, US Americans, and Mexicans alike to travel without restrictions throughout the continent would not only be a boon for business, it would give more people a better shot at providing for themselves and their families.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Diane Francis, editor-at-large at Canada’sNational Post, highlights the need for dissolved land borders and closer economic ties across North America.


“It is past time for the U.S. and Canada to eliminate their border,” writes Francis, adding that a “still deeper integration could drive major economic growth.”

Though her argument focuses on merging Canada and the United States into a single country — which I believe would put the decentralization at the heart of Canada’s model at risk — she has the right idea that free travel between the the nations, along with free trade, is what will make North America the continent of the future.

Ideals aside, what about continued constituent opposition to free and legal immigration across the Americas?

At present, Canadians and Mexicans traveling into the United States and vice versa are stopped, questioned, and screened by thousands of border agents. This hugely bureaucratic process chokes up commerce across borders and requires that all crossers carry a passport to gain entry.

The US Customs and Border Protection agents, the most notorious on the continent, are empowered by their mandate to patrol “land and sea borders to stop terrorists and drug smugglers before they enter the United States,” according to their mission statement. These perceived threats from outside agitators fuel enforcement and make legal crossings for ordinary citizens a dehumanizing hassle, despite the absence of any true threats.

Since 9/11, only 221 border crossings into the United States involved someone with a direct link to terrorism. That’s a pithy amount next to the 350 million legal border crossings into the country every year, as counted by the Department of Homeland Security, accounting for 0.0000006 percent.

As for drug smuggling, the true toll lies on the Mexican side. Since 2007, over 40,000 Mexican nationals in their border states have died as a result of the grueling War on Drugs, mainly as victims of the gangs emboldened by US drug prohibition, which keeps substances like cannabis and cocaine on the black market. A loosening of border restrictions would put pressure on politicians to consider superior policy alternatives.

Instead of US drones patrolling the borders to catch would-be drug smugglers and terrorists, they could be used to patrol the Arctic sea and the southern tip of Mexico for likely invaders. Either way, it would give the citizens of North America the freedom to move without the threat of armed guards or drones stopping them in their tracks.


In order to explain why such freedom to move between countries is not only necessary but also natural, a look at the history of international travel is warranted. For most of human history, travel for all people has been free and open, restricted only at times of rebellion or all-out war by the modern nation state.

World War I brought renewed concerns for international security, and passports and visas were required, as a “temporary” measure,” states Passport Canada’s website. Unfortunately, they’ve been required for global travel ever since, a trend currently being bucked throughout the European continent.

Following the example in Europe, what North America needs is a Schengen Agreement of its own, giving people the complete freedom to travel, live, and work, without the need for explicit permission from national governments.

It would be a broad step forward, making economic, political, and human sense — allowing people the fundamental right to vote with their feet and have a choice in the type of system they’d like to live under.

This article was originally appeared on PanAm Post.

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