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Trump’s tariff threat against Mexico could make migration worse

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President Donald Trump sent lawmakers across the US and Mexico into a frenzy on Thursday when he announced his administration would impose tariffs starting at 5% on Mexican goods until the country prevents migrants from reaching the US border.

The tariffs, which could gradually increase to 25% by October, are expected to damage prospects for the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the NAFTA replacement that was struck after more than a year of painstaking negotiations with Mexico and Canada.

Trump administration officials defended the tariffs in a conference call with reporters Thursday night, saying Mexican officials have not done enough to prevent Central American migrants from passing through their country en route to the US border.

“They need to step up their security efforts at their southern border,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said. “They have natural chokepoints leading away from the border of Chiapas and Guatemala, into Mexico and on the way to the US.”

A surge in Central American families in recent months has overwhelmed US Border Patrol agents and enraged Trump, who has previously lashed out at Mexico and threatened to close the entire border.

But beyond the impacts to trade, immigration advocates have suggested that the tariffs will do little to slow immigration from Central America — and could even make the problem worse.

Read more: Trump’s latest trade-war grenade has the global economy heading towards a scenario where no one wins

Tariffs will be ‘counterproductive’ on immigration

Central American migrants remain at a warehouse used as a shelter in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico on February 16, 2019.
AFP/Julio César Aguilar via Getty Images

Mexico already cooperates extensively with the US to slow Central Americans’ journey to the US. Officials even agreed to a controversial Trump administration policy that forces some migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases wind their way through the US court system.

Mexico could stop that cooperation at any time — especially if its leaders believe that nothing they do will satisfy Trump, according to Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy.

“There’s a very good chance that [tariffs] will be counterproductive,” Anderson told INSIDER. “Mexico and most countries don’t respond well to threats, and it’s possible that there’s a risk that you could even discourage Mexico from continuing the current cooperation that’s going on.”

Read more: Trump is deploying a tactic from ‘The Art of the Deal’ in his trade threats against Mexico

Mexico has also worked with US border agents at certain parts of the border to implement a practice called metering, where migrants are forced to wait — sometimes for months — outside ports of entry until officials let them enter the US and request asylum.

In the last seven months, more than 460,000 people were apprehended while crossing the US-Mexico border. But thousands of others remain stuck in Mexico.

The Associated Press counted an estimated 13,000 waiting in eight cities in Mexico due to metering, because the US is only letting a small number in per day. Mexican officials have estimated that more than 5,000 other migrants were returned to Mexico to await their court hearings in the US.

Mexican shelters and local lawmakers have struggled to accommodate the growing backlog in cities affected by metering, and have long complained about the lack of bed space and resources available for the migrants.

“At some point it would seem to me that once tariffs are put in place, there would seem to be calls within Mexico to ask whether the current level of cooperation should continue at its current level,” Anderson said. “From their perspective, they may interpret this as, ‘We don’t get credit for anything we do, but we certainly get criticized.'”

Read more: More people are moving from the US to Mexico than the other way around

‘This threat will not make Mexico more likely to cooperate’

16 Central American migrants cross the International Bridge II to be interviewed by U.S. immigration authorities and have the possibility of receiving asylum, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico, on the border with the US, on February 16, 2019.
AFP/Julio Cesar Aguilar via Getty Images

If the tariffs are eventually hiked to 25%, the damage to Mexico’s economy could even spur a new wave of migration.

Mexican migration to the US has dwindled for years, largely due to the country’s improved economy and America’s slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. But that could change if the tariffs hit Mexico so severely that its citizens start losing their jobs, Anderson said.

Tanking Mexico’s economy also won’t do much to convince Central American migrants to stay in their home countries or in Mexico, according to Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

“Weakening the US and Mexico economies and raising the price on goods from our third-largest trade partner will not persuade Central American families to remain in increasingly poor and violent countries,” he told INSIDER in a statement. “This threat will not make Mexico more likely to cooperate and help address the challenges of Central American migration to the US.”

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrote in a letter to Trump on Thursday that Central American migration would require dialogue — not threats — and that Mexico was already doing “as much as possible.”

“Social problems don’t get resolved with duties or coercive measures,” he wrote. “With all due respect, although you have the right to express it, ‘America First’ is a fallacy because until the end of times, even beyond national borders, justice and universal fraternity will prevail.”

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