Trump’s Mexico Tariffs Are Forever

Because that's just how he wants it.
June 4, 2019
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By Trump's logic, it's Mexico's fault that Hondurans and Guatemalans are coming to the U.S., so he must charge tariffs that will ultimately be paid by ... Americans? (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Last week, President Trump announced (via Twitter, of course) that he would unilaterally impose tariffs on Mexican imports.

The taxes — yes, tariffs are taxes — will eventually max out at 25 percent in the fall if the Trump administration isn’t satisfied with Mexico’s immigration policies. It just so happens that the Trump administration has given itself no incentive ever to declare its satisfaction.

White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace, “Regarding the measure, we intentionally left the declaration sort of ad hoc so we could work with the Mexicans to make sure that things did get better. So there’s no specific target, there’s no specific percentage.”

The policy itself is facially ludicrous. Trump is raising taxes on Americans because he’s angry at Mexico over Guatemalan, Honduran, and El Salvadoran immigrants. Um… what?

If anything, the view from Mexico City is even worse. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Mexicans really did pay for the tariffs instead of Americans: If the  Mexican government wanted to curb illegal immigration, there’s no defined goalit can reach, and therefore nothing to stop the Trump administration from endlessly moving the goalposts.

Between January and April, Customs and Border protection had apprehended nearly 38,000 unaccompanied children and 235,141 family members of El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran origins crossing the southwest border. The analogous numbers of  Mexicans apprehended in the same period are less than 6,000  and just more than 2,100, respectively. Curbing illegal immigration through Mexico by 20 percent would be a major achievement. Cutting it by half would be remarkable. An 80 percent reduction would be a miracle. But the Trump administration has every incentive to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The base will insist that any illegal immigration is too much.

Trump has demonized illegal immigrants as rapists, drug dealers, and gang members, so the only acceptable level of illegal immigration is none. That’s no more realistic as a policy goal than eliminating murder or tax fraud.

Had the administration – starting with the president — been more careful with its rhetoric, it could have differentiated between dangerous illegal immigrants and those who, apart from breaking immigration law, are peaceful, productive, and law- abiding. A reasonable administration would crack down on the former first, then address the latter with whatever resources remain.

Instead, the administration now has to demonize all of the illegal immigrants all of the time, and as long as one poor family crosses the Rio Grande in the dead of night, the tariffs have to stay. Anything less is surrender. Weak. Sad!

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Having painted itself into a corner, the administration looks remarkably comfortable.

Trump attributed strong GDP growth to tariffs, promised they would “bring in… wealth,” and declared they will “make our Country MUCH STRONGER.” No matter that the claim is laughable. By Trump’s logic, tariffs are so good for the economy that there is no reason ever to remove them?

If anything, Trump might raise trade taxes even further. He has plenty of motive,and Congress has foolishly delegated to the president all the legal means he needs. An opportunity could be anything – another caravan, a bad news cycle that desperately calls for a distraction, a high-profile crime committed by an illegal immigrant.

Or a recession. After 10 years of growth, at least one quarter of contraction is overdue. Facing a nail-biter re-election race, Trump could respond to the normal fluctuations of the business cycle with more tariffs, like a one-man Smoot-Hawley. Why stop at 25 percent? Why not, 50, 100, 250? The more tariffs, the better growth, right?

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And so the tariffs will likely remain in effect until the end of Trump’s presidency. They will not deter any immigration. And just like the wall, Mexico will not pay for them.

Are you tired of winning yet?

Benjamin Parker

Benjamin Parker is a senior editor at The Bulwark.