Since announcing his candidacy for president last summer, Donald Trump has said that Mexican leaders have manipulated the United States, using crime and illegal immigration to further their agenda. He claims that the Mexican government disseminated pamphlets about successful illegal immigration, and that the Mexican and the U.S. government’s supposed inaction on illegal immigration has cost the U.S. billions of dollars in healthcare, housing, and education expenditures in addition to its effect on crime and jobs.
He has also advocated for building a giant, uninterrupted wall along the U.S.-Mexico Border.
However, although “build that wall!” has become a Trump campaign catchphrase, Trump hasn’t offered a substantial policy proposals on the project, nor has he elaborated on the different tactics he would use to “build a great, great wall. . . [that] Mexico will pay for.”
Trump can talk all he wants, but the question remains: Why would Mexico pay anything for this disaster of an infrastructure project? And what would happen if they refuse?
According to Adam K. Webb, Resident Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, “Mexico simply will not agree to build a wall, no matter how much noise Trump makes about it. It would be an immensely unpopular expense when a large chunk of Mexico’s population lives in poverty. No Mexican president would last in office if he budged on this.”
But Donald Trump is the greatest negotiator in the world, author of The Art of the Deal and other gems. Surely, he must have a strategy.
On his website Trump states that until Mexico pays for the wall, his administration would impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards – of which we issue about one million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays); increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays); and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options].
In other words, Trump will confiscate any payments that undocumented workers send back to their families and friends in Mexico as a form of economic sanctions.
The World Bank reports that remittance payments comprise only 2 percent of Mexican GDP; however, as the National Review explains, Trump’s remittance ban would have a profound effect on poorer local economies in Mexico, where 19 percent of income comes from remittances. To complicate things further, Trump would increase the fees of diplomatic visas, as a political statement, and on the visas of Mexican nationals working in the U.S. under NAFTA.
Trump claims that, after a while, it would be more expensive and parlous for the Mexican government to allow the United States to institute these policies than it would be for them to construct the wall.
Though Trump proposes to “impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages,” it would be incredibly difficult for the government to effectively calculate and monitor illegal wages, especially as many undocumented workers use social security numbers voluntarily shared with them by family members.
He also wants to “increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them)” as a form of diplomatic sanction, but that action would do little more than further disincentivize the Mexican government from cooperating with an already antagonistic Trump administration.
The proposal would create incredible amounts of diplomatic tension with Mexico, which would jeopardize our security and diplomatic standing, and, more importantly for Trump, would make the Mexican government even more hostile to paying for any kind of border wall.
And though Trump promises to “increase fees on all border crossing cards — including those one million cards issued to Mexican nationals, NAFTA worker visas, and port of entry fees — as a lever of pressure on the Mexican government to build a wall, that could just as easily lead to more illegal immigration by Mexicans who can’t afford to cross the border legally.
If Trump increased the fees for visas while crippling the local economies through remittance bans, he would be dis-incentivizing legal immigration. He would be making it more expensive to come to America through a legal route. And if Mexicans really want to come to America in the wake of local economic chaos, they will do whatever it takes — even if it means coming through the previously-excavated tunnels, or simply crossing at the parts of the border where Trump’s fantasy wall won’t be able to reach.
Should Donald Trump plow ahead with his plan, however, the American people, the Mexican government, and other nations will be forced to respond. Let’s consider the global political ramifications of a Trump presidency.
According to Professor Webb, “there are very few ways that [Trump] could try twisting Mexico’s arm harder, without incurring consequences that would far outweigh whatever supposed advantage he might gain by playing to the worst segments of American public opinion.”
Although the United States has been largely unafraid of imposing sanctions to achieve political objectives in the past, Mexico’s fate is so closely tied to the U.S. economy that sanctions in the form of tariffs, limited visas, and customs delays, and asset freezing could be equally detrimental for the U.S. economy — especially since the North American Free Trade Agreement has largely guided continental trade and cross-border investment over the past 2 decades.
World Policy Institute Fellow and former Bard College Professor Jonathan Cristol agreed that Trump’s potential sanctions would lead to unprecedented consequences for Mexico, as the United States imports 81.2 percent of Mexican exports.
And if Trump managed to force Mexico to pay for the wall, it wouldn’t be “without destroying America’s reputation and provoking worldwide counterbalancing against the U.S.” Cristol noted in an email.
Trump would have to strong-arm the Mexican government, possibly by instituting extremely high tariffs on Mexican goods — the costs of which would be passed on to consumers.
“I assume Trump thinks that the cost of building the wall would be less than the damage to Mexican business when U.S. consumers stop purchasing goods produced in Mexico,” Cristol said, “But this ignores two important factors: first, many of these goods are produced by American owned firms, so it would have a rebound effect on the U.S. economy; and second, most importantly, it would be a major violation of World Trade Organization trading rules.”
Both scholars agreed that the sanctions could lead to a variety of responses, from diplomatic measures or brute force.
Professor Cristol said that he was confident that Mexico could win the lawsuit against the U.S. government, predicting that “retaliatory measures would be taken against the U.S. economy to the point at which the damage was equivalent to the damage caused to Mexico.”
And what if Trump responded to Mexican recalcitrance with the threat of force? That in turn could potentially lead to the potential cessation of close diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, Canada, and France, after those nations were forced to re-evaluate their alliances in light of the United States’ aggressive treatment of Mexico.
Dr. Cristol suggested that, in addition to reconsidering ties with the U.S., Trump’s rhetoric could cause other nations to expand their military industries in order to address their fear of what the United States had become.
Professor Webb agreed, and added that Trump’s actions would affect other nations’ perception of the United States, pushing traditional allies into the Russian and Chinese orbits. Under these circumstances, Mexico would be seen as a victim, evoking sympathy among many other nations.
In short: Though Donald Trump plays the embattled victim of bad trade deals and generous immigration laws, his attitude toward the Mexican government and the Mexican people would isolate the United States on the world stage — as indeed it already has.
Rory Mondshein received her B.A. in Political Studies and Social Policy from Bard College in 2014. In addition to working as a freelance writer, she serves as Oxford Global’s Education Ambassador. In September, Rory will be pursuing her MSc in Human Rights at the London School of Economics.
Photo: A man walks near the border bridge connecting El Paso with Ciudad Juarez, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez