Back in April, I wrote an article suggesting that President Trump consider gradually escalating tariffs against Mexico to compel that country to end the flow of illegal immigrants across our southern border. I argued that Congress and the courts will see to it that any sane migration policy that Trump pursues domestically will be sabotaged. In trade policy and foreign relations, however, President Trump has wide latitude, and he can use this leverage to force Mexico to stop the endless incursions against our sovereignty. Mexico has always been capable of doing so — it enforces its own harsh immigration laws mercilessly — but it chooses not to, because it is easier to pass the buck to Uncle Sam.
On May 30th, President Trump unveiled a new U.S. policy of gradually boosting tariffs on Mexican exports to a level of 25 percent, if Mexico fails to take decisive action to halt illegal immigration. Trump's action is bold, it is imaginative, and it will work, if we stick to our guns. Bravo, Mr. President!
The problem is that President Trump has taken bold action before to combat illegal immigration. He precipitated a government shutdown late in 2018 to compel Congress to appropriate at least $5 billion to build the border wall. In the end, under attack from all sides, the President gave way. He ended the shutdown despite having extracted just a small fraction of the necessary amount. He declared instead that he would go around Congress and use an emergency declaration to direct the required funds to wall construction. Although the wall continues to be built, politically speaking, the fact that Trump threw in the towel on the shutdown was interpreted — rightly — as a sign of weakness and as a defeat.
Trump may never again be able to threaten credibly to shut down the government in order to force Congress to fund his urgent priorities. Congress will assume that he doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to follow through. That is deeply unfortunate.
This time, in the battle over U.S. tariffs against Mexico, President Trump will face some of same headwinds. In addition to the caustic criticism he will receive, and already has received, from the Mexican government, he will be barraged with rhetorical attacks coming from the Left. Democrats and liberals will say that Trump is a racist (they would say this anyway, of course) who is punishing the Mexican people and American consumers because he can't abide innocent women and children seeking safety from bloodthirsty drug gangs. They will say he is misusing his authority over trade to pursue an insane vendetta against Hispanics. They will say he risks wrecking the U.S. economy by prosecuting two unnecessary trade wars at once. They will say that there never was any “crisis” at the border in the first place. They will say all these things over and over again, and the poor quality of their arguments will be partially nullified by their sheer quantity, given that the media will faithfully repeat every left-wing talking point ad infinitum.
Just as we saw during the government shutdown, President Trump will be abandoned by some of his key allies. Corporate America will castigate the tariffs against Mexico, because they will chafe at the added costs, and they will worry that long-established supply chains will be jeopardized. Underneath these claims will be the fact that corporate America has long benefited from the flow of cheap labor across our southern border, and it thus has no wish to see this flow disrupted — sovereignty be damned.
Most hair-raising for President Trump, though, will be bitter criticism of his new policy that comes from Congressional Republicans. This criticism has already started. These pipsqueaks, wishing to stress their moderation and their friendliness to corporate interests, will say that Trump's desire to control illegal immigration is laudable, but this is simply not the way to do it. They will argue that passage of the USMCA (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that is to replace NAFTA) is jeopardized by this precipitous new tariff policy. They will argue that more talking in Congress, and more diplomacy with Mexico and the countries in Central America, can solve the problem at the border much more effectively. “Patience!” they will say to President Trump. Rome wasn't built in a day. Cancel these sanctions, and we will go back to the negotiating table. Better yet, wait until after the 2020 election. No need to make waves before then.
None of these arguments can obscure the underlying reality: our country has put up with the ongoing violation of its borders and its sovereignty for far too long. Patience is, in fact, not the answer to the problem — it is the cause of it. President Trump is right to lose patience, and he is right to demonstrate to Mexico that we will no longer tolerate its blatant disrespect for our laws and our territorial integrity. If Trump can be legitimately criticized for anything, therefore, it is not for using tariffs against Mexico, but for waiting so long to do so.
I repeat: these tariffs can and will succeed. We have enormous leverage over our neighbors to the south. They, in turn, have tremendous discretion to implement policies that will stop the flow of illegal immigrants more or less totally, if only they so wish.
To win this battle, though, President Trump will need to gird himself for a long, bitter struggle. He should expect a firestorm of domestic criticism. He should expect some degree of slippage in his poll numbers. He should expect near universal condemnation in the international arena.
He should also expect, though, that if he stays the course and ultimately succeeds in restoring U.S. control over the southern border, he will have won the single greatest victory of his presidency, he will have secured his reelection in 2020, and he will have done more than make America great again — he will have made America America again.
These are stakes worth fighting for.
Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History at SUNY Alfred and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com