Trying to halt a growing national security crisis presented by undeterred illegal migration across the US southern border, President Trump has threatened to impose a five percent tariff on Mexican imports after June 10, bumping that tax up by five percent monthly until Mexico slows illegal migration from Central America into the U.S. or faces 25 percent tariffs. That strategy is risky but is timely – and may work.
What the President is, in effect, saying amounts to this: We have tried the carrot, now must move to the trade stick. President Trump tried to enforce existing federal laws but faced Democrat-run “sanctuary cities” which block cooperation with federal law enforcement.
He tried to ramp up border enforcement, increasing civilian personnel, expanding detention facilities, and making recourse to the National Guard. In Congress and the courts, Democratic leadership opposed him again, calling that effort a “manufactured crisis,” effectively looking the other way.
The President tried to deter illegal entry by accelerating deportation of those not entitled to asylum. Notably, a majority of those claiming asylum are not entitled, as they have not been singling out by their country of origin for persecution, and do not have the necessary “well-founded fear” of persecution. Most are economic migrants, just seeking a better life. For that, there is a legal route, which takes time.
The President next worked to complete a trade deal with Mexico that would reset basic understandings to enhance opportunities in the United States, but also create greater predictability and opportunity for workers in Mexico and Canada. The Democratically controlled US House refused to move the deal.
The President then requested inclusion in final fiscal 2019 appropriations legislation for a small part of his promised border wall, to deter rising illegal immigration. He was rebuffed by Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate.
He tried to compel reconsideration by Congress with a partial shutdown, which again did not produce the necessary funding for a comprehensive wall. He then sought, by way of executive reprogramming of defense funds to the border, to initiate a more robust and protective wall. He was confronted with congressional and judicial opposition.
In March and April 2019, the number of illegal border crossers topped 100,000, numbers that verify a genuine national security crisis. Media and political contestants debate whether this gush of illegal entrants into the United States should be called an “invasion” or “crisis,” is more a “humanitarian” than “security” disaster, but all this is beside the point.
As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “facts are stubborn things” – and we have facts here, which compel action. That is why the President has decided to use tariffs – relying on inherent national security and delegated trade authority – to raise the matter to a national government level, and link solving the problem to the Mexican economy.
In short, he has tried to resolve this issue internally, but recognizes several facts that make the Mexican Government arguably better positioned – or more fully incentivized – to solve the problem.
Those facts are these: Most illegal aliens entering the US come from impoverished Central American counties. Mexico should redouble efforts to stop them at Mexico’s own southern border. As they transit Mexico to get to the US, Mexico should allow repatriation to Mexico, not distant origin countries. Third, Mexico should agree to hold more of these illegal entrants seeking asylum on the Mexican side of the border, not permit their flow-through to the US.
One last fact argues for tariffs to incentivize Mexico to stop the gush north, which of course includes drugs, gang members and threats to health and safety. While Mexico is America’s third largest trading partner, the proposed tariffs would have a far greater effect in Mexico – which just suffered a slow first quarter – than on US consumers.
Americans can manufacture and grow much of what is subject to tariffs, even if costing slightly more. Americans can shift supply chains and seek imports from other countries.
Most interestingly, the cost advantage to American and Mexican companies of producing goods in Mexico leaves considerable room for profit, even in the face of tariffs; for example, the cost of labor in Mexico, as well as collateral expenses, tends to be about a third of US minimum labor costs.
In the end, some will declare President Trump’s use of tariffs and other trade tools to protect national security as inapt, ineffective, impractical, inordinately damaging to the US economy, or just poor diplomacy. The opposite is likely to prove true.
Having sought to use every US law enforcement, political, diplomatic and domestic security tool at an executive’ disposal – and been roundly rebuffed by Democratic leaders – he is now turning to trade. And it may work. The hope should be, by one and all, it does.