Tariffs and Immigration

Pres. Trump announced yesterday (6/7/19), on returning from Europe, that the threatened tariffs against Mexican imports were suspended “indefinitely.” It looks like Mexico agrees to do several things to stop or slow immigration from Central America aiming at the United States.

Well, I am the kind of guy who, on learning that he has earned the Publishers’ Clearing House Giant Jackpot immediately worries about accountants, and about where to stash the dough. So, here it goes.

Mr Trump never did specify how much Mexico would have to do to keep the threat away durably. Two problems. First, if I were the Mexican government, I would worry about his moving the goalposts at any time.

Second, – and those who hate him won’t miss it – absent specific goals, Mr Trump put himself in a position to claim a (considerable) political victory no matter what happens next. To take an absurd example, if the number of migrants from Central America decreases, by 1% in July and August, he will be able to say, “ I told you so, my tariff pressures work.” As the French say, “ Why cut yourself the switches that will be used to whip you with?”

Part of the agreement reportedly, incredibly, includes a provision that those migrants who are waiting for their American formal court appearance will be allowed to so in Mexico, and be allowed to work there while they wait. This sounds amazingly unfair to Mexico. (I sure hope some significant money changed hands in the background on the account of his provision.) Mexican public opinion is not going to respond well to this feature if it understands it.

Another feature of the agreement is that Mexico will allow itself to be designated as a third and “safe” country. This has to do with ordinary international asylum and refugee agreements language which generally specify that an asylee or refugee may not chose his country of destination but must seek legal status in the first safe country he reaches. So, for Syrians, that would be Greece, or Turkey, rather than say, Germany, or Sweden. You know how well this provision worked out in Europe! Even more seriously, Mexico is not safe by any measure: The Mexican homicide rate is more than five times higher than that of the US – which is itself not low. (Wall Street Journal, 8-9 2019, p. A6). Imagine what it will be against an alien, vulnerable population.

As I write, Mexico is already deploying its National Guard on its southern border to impeach passage. This is a brand new force; it has no experience; expect accidents or worse. When this happens, it won’t play well with the Mexican public. The southern border of Mexico is short, only about 150 miles but still, the Mexican National Guard has only 6,000 members, total.

American conservative opinion remains badly confused about the facts of immigration in general. This, in spite of my own valiant efforts. ( See my “Legal Immigration Into the US” – in 37 short parts, both in Notes on Liberty and on my blog. Ask me for the blog’s name via jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com.) On Friday evening (6/7/19), in less than 30 minutes, I heard two different Fox News commentators refer to the migrants arriving in caravans from Central America and that are overwhelming our national processing capacity as “illegal immigrants.” That’s wrong. People who run after the Border Patrol to turn themselves in as a prelude to their claiming asylum are not illegal immigrants. There is nothing illegal about such acts, however you deplore them. And, in our constitutional tradition, nothing can be deemed retroactively as against the law. If we don’t like what the law currently produces, we must change the law. Period.

I used to hope for a wholesale, inclusive change in our immigration laws. I now think this is not going to happen in a bi-partisan manner because there are still many Dems who deny the obvious: We are currently facing an immigration crisis. If the plight of would-be immigrants held in overcrowded facilities or let loose in strange cities without resources, does not move their hearts, nothing will. I now think the administration should opportunistically seek piecemeal reform as may be facilitated by temporary situations. Big change will not happen until the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress, in addition to the Presidency. I believe that equivalent Dem control would not make immigration reform possible because there are too many liberal ideologues and too many Dem politicians who want open borders, for different reasons.

One more thing: Mainstream conservatives and some spoiled libertarians have been clamoring on the social media that tariffs are wrong, always wrong, wrong, no matter what. They point out rightly that tariffs are first and foremost taxes on the consumers of countries that impose them. I am myself completely persuaded of the merits of free trade as a means to maximize production. This does not prevent me from seeing that trade pressures, including the imposition of tariffs, can be used to extract advantages from other countries. In fact, I suspect such maneuvers may often be the best alternative to military pressure. In this case, and temporarily, I understand, Mr Trump’s tariff mano-a-mano with the tough leftist Mexican president, seems to have borne fruit. So, I would like the never-never–never tariffs people on my side to provide a rough estimate of how much this particular tariff action – against Mexico – may have cost American consumers, total.

4 thoughts on “Tariffs and Immigration

  1. I’ll say something nice about Trump (who I generally think of as a dribbling anus of a human being): erratic behavior is how you play a mixed strategy, and sometimes a mixed strategy is the best response to a game theoretic situation.

    If we look at any particular success or failure, Trump’s approach is going to look like a lot of good and bad luck. But the appropriate metric is to consider the long-run average.

    The executive ought to be obliged to promote domestic interests. In foreign policy, this may be well served by being unpredictable. In domestic policy it’s generally the opposite. (IMHO.) I think Trump might have comparative advantage as an occasional negotiator for a larger organization.

    That said, two reasons I see this episode as a failure: 1) I want to see more of the world’s huddled masses move here and I’ll settle for informally open borders via lack of enforcement. 2) I’d like to see international norms such that tariffs are seen as untouchable. That said, I’m not a foreign policy guy, so I’d like to see you and Brandon hash it out while I stand on the sidelines learning something.

    • Interesting thoughts but you seem to be battling someone else. Right now, Mr Trump’s strategy really, really seems to be bearing fruit. That’s only true if you don’t wan t open border, informal or otherwise. If you do want the US southern border to be open to all ( not only Latin Americans, obviously) then, his seeming victory is a defeat for your side. And we are in agreement. I am less than sure that the seeming victory is a lasting victory. I give the reasons why in the essay. Separately, you seem to be holding to an unusual view of the way tariffs are established and changed. I have to bifurcate myself here. There is an honorable theoretical view that if a country unilaterally abolished tariffs, it will only profit. The fact is that no country has ever tried it. (Another topic.) In the reality we know, tariff lowerings are negotiated painstakingly in ways that are intended to distribute the immediate pain they cause. (That’s in the form of disruption and unemployment.) Much international trade is asymmetrical. Most US trade is asymmetrical. The Mexican economy depends on exports to the US more than the American economy depends on exports to Mexico

  2. (First part sent too early, by mistake and without proof reading. Sorry . Continued) So, tariffs are frequently changed and, in the long run, this benefits every one, but only in the long run. Lowering tariffs allows for a freer play of comparative advantage ( a term you seem to be misusing, perhaps). It’s natural that tariffs should be tweaked frequently, again, to spread out the pain. Thus, it’s unrealistic to hope tariffs will be “untouchable.” Tariffs have implications other than for economic growth. Because trade dependency is asymmetrical, they offer an opportunity for non-military pressure on others. That’s true so long as there are nation-states. I don’t know what tariff policy would look like in a world without nation-states. I suspect (suspect) that ‘s what’s in the back of your mind. I suspect (suspect) you don’t like any kind of coercion by nation-states and that stops you from considering the real alternatives. One such alternative would be for the US to annex the three small central American countries that account for our current immigration troubles and to install there the rule of law. I think that a few American firing squads on television at prime time would dampen the lawlessness that is a prime source of emigration from El Salvador, for example. I am no expert, obviously but other coercive measures could easily be tried in central America as alternatives to putting tariff pressure on Mexico to control its (ITS) immigration. Tariffs re also a traditional source of government revenue, probably the oldest. Finally, your opening sentence suggests that personal, subjective considerations my affect your assessment of the Trump apparent success around Mexican tariffs. In this connection, I can only repeat a now old but still valid joke: If Pres. Trump were observed walking on water, many would sneer that he doesn’t even know how to swim. PS Although I am incapable of doing the task myself, I would really be interested in what real, principled libertarian foreign policies should look like, given that there are nation-states.

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