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Diplomacy, not tariffs, will quell the border crisis

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There is an immigration emergency surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border that needs to be addressed.

Rather than imposing tariffs, however, what is urgently needed are immediate, determined, sustained negotiations with Mexico to work through the very complex issues surrounding the irregular immigration that crosses our shared border.  

New tariffs on Mexican imports would have major economic and political costs for the United States and Mexico, with potential for serious long-term damage.

Neither the U.S. nor Mexico have invested enough in serious negotiations to hammer out an agreement on the immigration crisis or related border security issues, but the decision by Mexico’s president to send cabinet members to meet with U.S. counterparts in Washington this week can start that process.

The Mexican government has not had sufficient resources to manage the increased flow of migrants, nor has it applied a consistent policy on how to treat and care for them.

Mexican authorities are struggling to balance their commitment to respecting migrants’ human rights with their declared policy of not interfering in the affairs of other countries; in this case the U.S. by allowing so many undocumented persons to move across the shared border in an unregulated way. 

Mexico’s immigration and refugee agencies are understaffed and under-resourced, with serious capacity shortcomings. 

Central American governments’ inability to provide for the basic needs and safety of many of their citizens, fueling the migration, has deep-rooted causes that will take years to solve.  

Mexico and the United States have agreed in principle on the value of encouraging economic development and job creation in southern Mexico and Central America as part of a longer-term response, but they have not yet taken concrete steps in that direction, and the U.S. has recently cut aid to Central America, despite the dire needs. 

The U.S. is reportedly sending border agents to help Guatemala at its border with Mexico, but Washington and Mexico City have not forged agreement on managing the near-term challenges, nor on ways to help strengthen Mexico’s capacity and resource needs. 

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the U.S. is seeking tighter security on Mexico’s border with Guatemala, a crackdown on migrant smugglers in Mexico and an agreement under which asylum seekers would be required to seek refuge in Mexico: All areas where Mexico would need additional capacity.

Ironically, public statements by leaders may have generated larger migrant numbers. When Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, sent messages indicating he would welcome and treat migrants well, they came in larger numbers than Mexico could handle.

When President Trump threatened to close the border, Central American migrants apparently heard that they had better move quickly to the U.S. before that option was taken away.

Serious U.S. border capacity gaps, including the serious shortage of asylum judges, have contributed significantly to the crisis.

U.S. tariffs would multiply the suffering on both sides of the border. U.S. consumers and producers would pay billions of dollars because of the tariffs.

Since the U.S. makes and trades so much with Mexico, a 5-percent tariff would effectively be a $17 billion tax on U.S. businesses and consumers, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That amount could grow to $86 billion with the threatened 25-percent tariff, they estimate. 

The costs will be widespread and could well be higher with renewed delays at the border as tariffs are applied where there were none before. Plus, this situation will make approval of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement much more complicated, potentially hurting millions of U.S. workers whose jobs depend on commerce with two o of our largest export markets.

Let’s avoid this with good diplomacy, starting with this week’s U.S.-Mexico talks.

The tried-and-true diplomatic approach is to launch and sustain negotiations to find solutions, initiated by high-level government ministers and carried out by their representatives, with ministers coming back together to check progress and then sending their officials back to work again as needed. 

Other actors, such as international organizations, NGOs and other governments would be invited in as needed (if, for example, the process started with the U.S. and Mexico but moved to include the Central American governments).  

If this process bears fruit, it can serve as a foundation for addressing other tough, related issues, such as cross-border crime. This kind of engagement is the most effective way to find the solutions and to avoid long-term damage to the vital relations with our southern neighbor.

Earl Anthony Wayne is the co-chair of the advisory board of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center and is the former ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of State for economic and business affairs.

Tags Andrés Manuel López Obrador Donald Trump Illegal immigration Mexico–United States border States of the United States

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