U.S. Farmers Suffer From Ban On Mexican Trucks

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One sore point in U.S.-Mexico relations, involves a dispute over whether to allow Mexican trucks onto U.S. highways. The U.S. ban has prompted Mexico to enact steep tariffs on U.S. potatoes and other products. Union truck drivers fought to block the Mexican trucks to save U.S. jobs. But now U.S. farmers say the resulting trade fight is costing them jobs and business.


And this evening, when the two heads of state sit down to a state dinner, some of the food on their plates may be part of a trade dispute. Last year, Mexico imposed more than $2 billion worth of tariffs on potatoes, grapes and 90 other agricultural and manufactured goods produced in the U.S.

NPR's Chris Arnold reports.

CHRIS ARNOLD: The dispute broke out about a year ago. Congress voted to end a pilot program that was allowing Mexican trucks to make deliveries in the U.S. Mexico then retaliated with these steep tariffs, and that's been hurting U.S. farmers.

(Soundbite of tractor)

ARNOLD: Here in Oregon, a big, green tractor is plowing a field on Nels Iverson's farm.

Mr. NELS IVERSON (Farmer): We grow potatoes for the chip market.

ARNOLD: Mexico used to buy a lot of potatoes from region. In fact, most of the French fries at McDonald's across Mexico and Asia come from Oregon and Washington. But the tariff has cut in half U.S. exports of frozen potato products to Mexico. Meanwhile, Canadian frozen potato shipments have risen by 50 percent. Iverson says that that means fewer potatoes are being planted here.

Mr. IVERSON: About a 10 to 15 percent reduction in the Oregon Acres this year, and that means less jobs at the factories that manufacture frozen potato products.

ARNOLD: And it turns out Mexico is also a big importer of Christmas trees from Oregon. But those, too, are targeted by the tariffs. So this past year, the growers around here were burning their unsold trees.

Mr. IVERSON: We saw piles of Christmas trees burning for about two months. Yeah, you could just see the plume of smoke, and it would burn for hours.

ARNOLD: Beyond agriculture, the tariffs target everything from sunscreen to paper to dishwashers. Tom Donohue is the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and he spoke last week at the National Press Club in Washington.

Mr. TOM DONOHUE (President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): Mexico has imposed $2.4 billion worth of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. manufacturing and agricultural products. By our estimates, these actions have cost the United States 25,000 jobs.

ARNOLD: Now, a lot of international trade experts say the job losses are not Mexico's fault. They say that Mexico was right to retaliate with tariffs after the U.S. blocked Mexican trucks from its highways. That's because under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, the U.S. had agreed to allow in the Mexican trucks, but Congress later didn't honor the agreement. The Teamsters Union has lobbied hard against Mexican trucks in the U.S.

Mr. JIM HOFFA (President, Teamsters Union): Unsafe Mexican trucks, unsafe Mexican drivers, turning them loose in, you know, giant trucks all over the highway endangering the American driving public.

ARNOLD: Jim Hoffa is the Teamsters president. He insists that Mexican trucks and drivers will not comply with U.S. safety standards, which he says are very strict for a U.S. driver.

Mr. HOFFA: He is drug-tested. He has a physical. He has to be part of a computer bank, you know, like you and I are, if you get a drunk driving or you get a driver's violation. They don't have any of that in Mexico.

ARNOLD: But the U.S. Transportation Department says that all that is largely not true. They say the Mexican government does have a computerized safety database, and during the pilot program that brought Mexican trucks into the U.S., the drivers were drug tested, and their safety record was excellent. The DOT says that Mexican truck drivers made 20,000 trips into the U.S. with only one accident involving a minor injury.

Mr. BILL GRAVES (American Trucking Associations): In my opinion, there was no good, valid reason to pull the plug on that pilot program.

ARNOLD: That's Bill Graves, who heads up the industry group the American Trucking Associations. Graves says that he thinks that it's discriminatory to block Mexican trucks and drivers. After all, Canadian truck drivers have been allowed across the border.

Mr. GRAVES: I think discriminatory would be a good word.

ARNOLD: Jim Hoffa says, though, Mexico is a country with a lot of problems, and certainly bribing officials is not unheard of in Mexico. Which raises the question: Couldn't truck drivers with, say, drunk driving records pay off somebody to get a clean record? An official with the Department of Transportation says that is concerning, but he says so are some problems with U.S. drivers.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration says it's working on a plan to end the tariffs and let some Mexican trucks back into the U.S.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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