Trump’s Mexico Tariffs Might Actually Work

The art of the ransom. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

On first glance, Donald Trump’s plan to slap across-the board, steadily rising tariffs on Mexico — until the Mexican government agreed to stop Central American asylum seekers from crossing into the U.S. — looked insane. Beyond the fact that the president did not specify what, precisely, he wanted Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government to do, his threat appeared to undermine a wide variety of his own political objectives.

The president is currently trying to win congressional authorization for his new version of NAFTA, and Nancy Pelosi’s caucus has said it will block that deal’s passage unless the White House gets the Mexican government to embrace stronger enforcement mechanisms for the agreement’s provisions on labor standards. That was going to be a tall order under any circumstances. In a context where the U.S. has just demonstrated that its commitments in trade agreements are effectively meaningless — as it feels entitled to unilaterally impose tariffs at any time, by invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act — winning such concessions from AMLO would seem all but impossible. Further, such lawlessness would also, ostensibly, make it harder for China to trust the U.S. to abide by the terms of any agreement for ending the current trade war between the world’s two great powers.

And then there’s the fact that the strength of U.S. economy is far and away Trump’s best political asset. If the president actually allowed tariffs on all Mexican imports to climb to 25 percent by October — as he threatened to do — commerce on the North American continent would be severely burdened and economic growth depressed.

Meanwhile, it’s far from clear that Trump’s proposal is constitutional. And some Senate Republicans believe they could actually assemble a veto-proof majority behind repealing the tariffs.

All of which is to say: Mexico had a wide variety of reasons to believe that Trump would ultimately back down. And caving to his threat would set a dangerous precedent for our neighbors to the south. Paying ransoms incentivizes more hostage-taking.

And yet it now looks possible that Mexico is so unnerved by the prospect of Trump’s tariffs chasing investment and supply chains north of the border, they’re not up to calling his bluff. As the Washington Post reports:

U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing the outlines of a deal that would dramatically increase Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts and give the United States far more latitude to deport Central Americans seeking asylum, according to a U.S. official and a Mexican official who cautioned that the accord is not finalized and that President Trump might not accept it.

Faced with Trump’s threat to impose escalating tariffs on Mexican goods beginning Monday, Mexican officials have pledged to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the country’s border region with Guatemala, a show of force they say will make immediate reductions in the number of Central Americans heading north toward the U.S. border.

The Mexican official and the U.S. official said the countries are negotiating a sweeping plan to overhaul asylum rules across the region, a move that would require Central Americans to seek refuge in the first foreign country they set foot upon after fleeing their homeland. Under such a plan, the United States would swiftly deport Guatemalan asylum seekers who set foot on U.S. soil to Mexico.

The Mexican government has met many of Trump’s demands on immigration. But it’s drawn a red line on signing a “safe third country agreement” — a deal that would declare Mexico to be a safe harbor for Central Americans fleeing the Northern Triangle. This would mean that Central American migrants who travel to the U.S. southern border would no longer be entitled to asylum hearings in the United States, as they would have already secured the right to seek asylum in Mexico, a safe country. Such an arrangement would go a long way toward solving our “migrant crisis,” but only by outsourcing that crisis to Mexico.

The Post’s reporting makes it sound like AMLO is caving on this point; or at least acquiescing to a similar agreement. If that’s the case, then Trump’s absurd proposal actually worked — assuming he’s willing to take yes for an answer.

Trump’s Mexico Tariffs Might Actually Work