From the day Candidate Trump went down the escalator, he insisted that Mexicans are bad hombres. Even his tacked-on compliment — “and some, I assume are good people” — had a hint of meanness. The theme persists: Over the weekend, the president threatened to slap new tariffs against our southern neighbor.
Set aside the harm such tariffs are likely to do to our economy. Here’s a Trump tweet from Sunday, explaining the rationale behind the proposal: “People have been saying for years that we should talk to Mexico. The problem is that Mexico is an ‘abuser’ of the United States, taking but never giving. It has been this way for decades.”
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney clarified on Fox News Sunday, telling Chris Wallace that slapping America’s third-largest trading partner with gradually increasing tariffs is an “immigration matter, not a trade matter.”
In other words, Trump can’t get the House of Representatives to help him block illegal immigration from Central America, so now he is demanding Mexico stanch the flow for him — on pain of new tariffs.
Well, guess what? Mexico is as ill-equipped to solve the problem as Washington, where political dysfunction and polarization have long blocked a comprehensive fix. If anything, Mexico has fewer of the tools needed to deal with the flood of migrants to our border.
Principally, by the way, this isn’t even Mexico’s problem. For starters, fewer Mexicans migrate to El Norte these days.
Nowadays, the border crisis mostly involves people fleeing poor governance, rampant crime and lousy economies in Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Mexico, moreover, has helped by keeping as many of them as it can on its side of the frontier. True, Mexico’s southern border, where migrants launch their trek, is leaky. But it could have been much worse if Mexico had told Trump this is his problem, not Mexico’s, so he must deal with it.
Mexican coyotes do facilitate the mass movement through the country to our border. But tariffs can’t alleviate that problem; crime and corruption are endemic to Mexico’s national life.
Ridding Mexico of crime and corruption is intimately tied to continued growth of its middle class and to raising awareness among Mexicans that they have a lot to gain by forcing law and order — and a lot to lose by letting crime lords run things.
Mexico’s new government, its most leftist in decades, isn’t helping. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador rode to power by promising to end corruption, but his government takeovers and welfare splurges are unlikely to grow the middle class.
But once US tariffs slow trade with the Yanks, AMLO will even more eagerly go for outdated socialist models, further harming Mexico’s economy.
So no, tariffs won’t end the border crisis or get Mexico to pay for a wall Congress won’t fully fund. They may exacerbate it: As Mexico’s economy deteriorates, poorer Mexicans could join Central Americans seeking refuge north.
Hopefully, cooler White House heads will prevail, as US-Canada-Mexico talks over the new North American trade deal begin this week. Why? Because American manufacturers don’t want to lose the second-largest market for US-made goods (after Canada). And let’s not raise the price of things we import from Mexico, not least car parts.
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Beyond tariffs, Trump’s Mexican fixation is harmful on its own terms, because it creates tension between two neighbors with one of the world’s longest land borders and a pair of deeply intertwined cultures.
True, Trump didn’t invent Mexicans’ grudge against America. They remember the Alamo, for one, very differently than Texans do. Also true: Much anti-Yankee animosity in Mexico is based on dated notions of imperialism and dominance.
But we have our own myths about Mexicans. Remember that lazy sombrero-wearing guy sleeping under a cactus in old cartoons?
Times have changed. Both sides have learned to appreciate each other as ties became beneficial for everyone. Yet Trump’s insults have created a whole new layer of animosity that will further distance neighbors and steer us toward perpetual clash, rather than beneficial cooperation.
No good will come out of it, and rather than solving a crisis Trump has vowed to tackle, it’ll deepen it.
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