Fred LaSor: The great tariff scare

This weekend we learned from media outlets Mexico blinked when faced with President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on exports to the United States. The president had announced only a few weeks earlier Mexico had to stem the flow of Central American immigrants passing through Mexico and crossing our southern U.S. border without documentation, or face gradually increasing tariffs on certain exports.

His tariff threat was criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike. We were told consumers suffer most from tariffs, prices of selected goods (said waggishly to include guacamole and tequila) would skyrocket, and Americans would ultimately pay the bill.

As a general rule, those criticisms are valid. It’s an article of faith in international relations free trade allows the invisible hand of the marketplace to decide which country will produce which products, based on comparative advantage. If one country can grow soybeans more efficiently than another, but the other is able to produce TVs and telephones to be sold at a lower price, then we should encourage those relative price advantages to decide who will grow soybeans and who will produce electronics.

The mostly Democrat-leaning press agreed with the mostly Republican Chamber of Commerce: Trump’s threat was bad for the United States and for Mexico. The president, we’re told, needs to listen to his experts. The Wall Street Journal called the “threat of tariffs... a drag on investment and risk-taking.” Monday’s stock market ignored the Journal and posted modest gains.

Statements from our State Department and the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate our southern neighbor will move their National Guard to its southern border and clamp down on human trafficking. These are good developments. If Mexico also stems the flow of Asians, Africans and ISIS sympathizers transiting our southern border via Mexico, that will be even better.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lectures us about the immorality of a wall. Other elected Democrats tell us it’s in the nature of Americans to be generous to people in need. We’re reminded by journalists of the poem by Emma Lazarus on the base of the Statue of Liberty promising succor to the world’s poor. And what journalist could miss the chance to publish photos of a mother with children swimming the Rio Grande or crawling under a fence somewhere?

Trump looked at the bottom line: leaving the border wide open at the same time we promise access to government benefits creates a huge magnet for population inflows. More than 100,000 people are said to have crossed in May alone. This can’t continue indefinitely. At some point controls must be put in place, as Nancy Pelosi surely understands. But with many of the benefits to immigrants coming from state governments, Trump couldn’t change that policy. He had to go for the larger prize.

What the pundits misunderstood was Trump’s threat had nothing to do with trade. It was, instead, designed to goad the Mexicans into acting firmly on the flood of immigrants transiting their country. It remains to be seen if his threat will work, but what we’re hearing right now is a signed agreement is in place promising Mexican National Guard troops will stop the inflow of “irregular immigrants,” as the State Department announcement called them, and clamping down on human trafficking. That is a good start.

Now we need our Congress to write legislation to address overall immigration policies, an issue they’ve largely ignored. That’s unlikely: they prefer to pursue proof of Russian collusion even though Mueller said there was none. We need a massive House cleaning.

Fred LaSor reported on refugee affairs while stationed with the Foreign Service in Africa.


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