Are Mexican Trade and Immigration Really Unconnected?

The threat of punitive tariffs may not be such a bad idea

By Dan Cadman on June 4, 2019

When President Trump announced that he would institute a series of increasingly stiff trade tariffs to be levied against Mexico for its failure to do enough to impede illegal immigration to the United States, a number of voices – many of them conservatives – expressed dismay and concern, stating that there was no inherent linkage between trade and immigration, and that Trump's action could undermine the USMCA (U.S.-Mexico-Canada) trade agreement working its way through the congressional approval process.

Many free-trade Republicans in Congress have taken things a step further and are contemplating ways to limit or undo the president's authority to impose such penalizing tariffs.

I'm no fan of USMCA, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), because I see many of the same weak points in both agreements, so in truth I'm indifferent as to whether or not Trump's decision to impose tariffs would spell the death knell of the USMCA, although I'm not sure that it would; both the Mexicans and Canadians need access to sell their products in our markets in too many important ways for this decision to sink the USMCA ship.

But those who suggest that there's no linkage between trade and immigration are truncating history. When the initial trade talks began that resulted in the original NAFTA, Mexico was included as a partner because of the cacophony of ardent voices who proclaimed that by dealing it in, the Mexican economy would be fundamentally altered by leveling the economic playing field among the three nations, and as a consequence we would see over time a waning of the northward migration of Mexican citizens seeking to live and work illegally in the United States.

Now decades later, despite the openness of the U.S. and Canada to the many thousands of items, large and small, produced in Mexican maquiladoras, we see that Mexico still remains in many ways a feudal economy; the growth of a middle class has been inhibited by multiple factors including corruption on a grand scale; and the U.S. border is still penetrated in large numbers by Mexicans crossing illegally.

On top of that, we also now have the tidal wave of humanity from Central America's Northern Triangle using Mexico as a welcome mat as they trek northward and then join the tens of thousands of Mexicans who enter the U.S. contrary to our laws each year. Mexico's response? Tepid at best. Why try to stop their own, or any other country's, citizens from entering the U.S.? It's easy to understand why Mexico answers "not our problem", given the hundreds of millions that enter the Mexican economy yearly from remittances sent back from all of those workers employed illicitly in our country.

Considered in this light, it doesn't sound either irrational or unconnected for Trump to order punitive trade tariffs to try to force a change in behavior from Mexico's interconnected business and political elites. Surely letting the USMCA move forward on autopilot – as we did with NAFTA for years once approved – is the worst of all possible courses of action, because it signals that Mexico truly can have its cake and eat it too.