The United States faces a momentous decision this month: Whether to negotiate a free trade agreement for the entire North American continent. This is not a partisan issue; it is a pivotal statement about the kind of country we are and want to become.

Do we fear that free trade with a poorer neighbor will hurt American workers, or do we have confidence that our nation's comparative advantages will permit all sides to gain by such an agreement? Do we fear being overrun by Mexican migrants, overwhelmed by the Spanish language and swamped by Mexican pollution, or do we have confidence that immigration under a more cooperative relationship is a source of economic strength and cultural diversity - and that we can work together with Mexico to ensure the improvement of health and environmental standards in both countries?At its root, the current debate, like the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico itself, is about fear and confidence. Mexico, of course, has more to fear from U.S. strength than we have from Mexican poverty. That explains why Mexico built formidable barriers to keep out the United States.

President Carlos Salinas de Gor-tari has boldly decided to dismantle these barricades, but there are many in Mexico who say he is foolish to trust the "gringos." If the United States does not respond positively to Mexico's proposal for a free-trade agreement, these mistrustful Mexicans who believe in walls rather than cooperation will prevail, and it will be a long time before a Mexican leader is willing to take the kind of risk that Salinas has taken.

But we should not negotiate a North American Free Trade Agreement just to say yes to a Mexican gamble. We should do it because it's in the long-term interests of the United States.

A North American Free Trade Area would constitute the largest free market in the world. It would stimulate the restructuring of North American industry, enhancing our ability to maintain a competitive global edge over that of the European Community and East Asia.

However, instead of becoming a new regional bloc or fortress, NAFTA could improve the prospects for a successful GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). It is important to remember that both the EC and Japan are more dependent on our market than we are on theirs, and the fear that our market may close could encourage them to reduce their own trade barriers.

The first positive outcome of a NAFTA will be the creation of American jobs due to exports rather then the loss of jobs due to imports. In just the last four years, U.S. exports to Mexico doubled, creating over 260,000 jobs.

While our entire nation will gain from NAFTA, some U.S. workers and businesses will gain more than others, and some will be hurt. Congress should work with the administration to devise ways to transfer some of the gains of free trade to those who lose.

Opinion polls show that the values of the people of Canada, the United States and Mexico are beginning to converge.

Our concerns about human rights and democracy in Mexico are legitimate, but our views are likely to become more influential as our economies and societies begin to integrate.

If we worry about instability in the Persian Gulf or poverty in Africa, think for a moment of the impact on the United States of instability and continued economic deterioration in Mexico. The consequences for America would be grave.

NAFTA provides a legitimate way to promote the economic and political development of Mexico, even as it will help our economy.

Our country has always stood for inclusion and justice. We are at our best when we welcome outsiders and when we strive to ensure that the benefits of unity are shared. The North American Free Trade Area offers us an unprecedented opportunity to welcome a neighbor into a wider community, and to work with Mexico and Canada to build a continental arrangement that will be the model for relations between rich and poor in the 21st century.

1991 Los Angeles Times Syndicate