By James Morrissey, Washington CorrespondentReflecting the soft U.S. economy and what many economists describe as a major soft goods recession, textile and apparel imports for the first time since1988 declined last year. U.S. Commerce Department data for 2001, show that textile and apparel imports of 32.8 billion square meter equivalents were down by 0.6 percent from 2000. While the decline was minor, it reflects a reversal of a trend that had seen a steady annual rise of both textile and apparel imports. Of particular significance was a 9 percent drop in apparel imports from Mexico, which in recent years had increasingly been displacing imports from the Far East and Orient, and under terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) generally contained U.S. fabric and yarn.Running counter to the overall downward trend, imports from Pakistan, South Korea, Cambodia and Indonesia showed significant increases and nearly offset the decline in imports from Mexico and the Caribbean.According to trade officials at the American Textile Manufacturers Institute (ATMI), Asian nations have become more price-competitive as a result of currency devaluations, and they are eating into what for some time had been a competitive advantage of NAFTA countries.The year-end data also show that U.S. exports of textiles and apparel measured in dollars, also declined, reversing a 15-year trend of annual increases. Textile exports of $10 billion were down 4.3 percent and apparel exports valued at $6.5 billion were off 20.3 percent. This resulted in a record-breaking annual trade deficit of $62 billion. As was the case with imports, much of the decline in exports is attributed to less trade with Mexico and the Caribbean Basin nations.