President Trump on Thursday announced a 5% tariff on all imports from Mexico until the country does more to stop immigrants from reaching the US border.
The tariff, which will go into effect June 10, will continue to increase until the “problem is remedied,” he added on Twitter.
Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney later said the percentage would increase by 5% every month until reaching 25% on Oct. 1.
“It is our very firm belief that the Mexican government can and needs to do more to help us with our situation at our southern border,” Mulvaney told reporters.
It’s unclear exactly what goal Mexico needs to meet in order to avoid tariffs; Mulvaney said only that the number of people at the border needs to start coming down by a “significant” number.
The amount of immigrants at the border will likely start going down even without the threat of tariffs because historically the number of apprehensions lowers because of the summer heat.
The administration will impose the tariffs by invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977, which allows the president to implement tariffs during a national emergency, Mulvaney said.
The administration contends that the number of immigrants arriving at the border is overwhelming agents on the ground, creating the emergency.
The number of people, mostly Central Americans, apprehended in May is on pace to be the highest in over 12 years, acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said.
US Customs and Border Protection apprehended 109,144 people along the southern border in April, the highest monthly figure since 2007, though still well below the peak of 1.6 million encountered in 2000.
Mexico, McAleenan said, is only stopping one-fifth of the immigrants US agents are seeing coming up through Central America, which needs to increase. Mexican authorities also need to crack down on smugglers, he added.
Asked if Trump was aware that the cost of the tariffs would be shouldered by US consumers, Mulvaney said people in the US are already paying for the cost of the people showing up at the border.
“Americans are already paying for this right now. Illegal immigration comes at a cost to the American taxpayer,” he said. “We really do not want to do this, but we have to in order to protect the country.”
John Sandweg, who previously headed Immigration and Customs Enforcement and served as general counsel at the Department of Homeland Security, said the move could have severe implications because the relationship with Mexico can be frustrating, and even under the Obama administration, officials pushed the Mexican government to do more.
“He has got to be very careful,” Sandweg told BuzzFeed News. “The greatest partner we have on border security is Mexico.”
Mexican officials help tip off border authorities on large groups coming across and work in coordination with US officials often, and take back individuals who have been quickly deported, Sandweg said.
“This carries a lot of risk. If they alienate Mexico, they could dial back the cooperation,” he said. “It would create an epic meltdown in our border security apparatus.”
Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, said that it’s true that during the first two months of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration officials issued more visas to migrants and deported fewer Central Americans, but stopped in the face of pressure from the US.
“It has become a strange pattern: first Mexico accedes to U.S. demands, then the President threatens Mexico,” Wilson told BuzzFeed News. “It doesn’t make sense. Mexico is already at the table. Mexico is already working with the U.S. to manage the migration crisis. Why threaten your partner?”
Making the situation even stranger, Wilson said, the White House submitted paperwork to Congress to move forward with the passage of the USMCA, which is a free trade agreement, on the same day this threat was issued.
“Which is it?” Wilson said. “Does the Trump Administration want free trade in North America in order to create jobs and strengthen regional competitiveness, or does it want to raise tariffs that act as a tax on American consumers?”
The announcement drew swift rebuke from business and government leaders in border states.
Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, called the tariff “a prescription for a self-induced economic slowdown.”
“This will only inflict harm on the U.S. consumer,” Hamer said in a statement. “Mexico is our friend and neighbor, a partner in trade and security. The president’s announcement is baffling and, if carried out, will be terribly damaging.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, reiterated his opposition to tariffs in a series of tweets, but said he prioritized national security and a solution to the humanitarian crisis at the border above commerce and urged Congress to act on the free trade agreement.
“It’s long past time for Congress to act, both on border security as well as USMCA, which was introduced today and will have substantial long-term benefit to all of our economies,” Ducey said on Twitter.
Theresa Brown, a former Customs and Border Protection adviser who now heads immigration policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that without the Trump administration outlining exactly what it wants Mexico to do, the tariffs won’t be very helpful.
“I don’t see this helping get USMCA done in Mexico or encouraging Pelosi to push it through the house,” Brown told BuzzFeed News. “And, it will hurt US businesses as much as Mexico.”