Trump’s Mexico Dilemma, and Vice Versa

The view from south of the border.

Photographer: PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

Come Jan. 20, President-elect Donald J. Trump will start carrying out his agenda. How does he expect to turn his promises into policy? Do his plans make sense? If not, what should he do? Finally, given the political realities of Washington, what’s most likely to happen? This is part of a series of editorials that try to answer these questions.

What he says he’ll do: Trump famously said he will build an “impenetrable” wall on the southern border to stop illegal immigration. He has also said he’ll tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement and slap a 35 percent tariff on Mexican goods entering the U.S., in order to reduce the trade deficit with Mexico and keep U.S. factories from moving south.

Does that make sense? Trump’s get-tough approach with Mexico is likely to backfire on both fronts. His wall would be an expensive and time-consuming boondoggle that would hinder cooperation with Mexico on everything from counterterrorism to the environment. Threatening to pull out of NAFTA unless it’s renegotiated is less controversial -- Barack Obama said the same when he ran for office in 2008 -- but Trump’s authority to impose a 35 percent tariff is questionable. Moreover, even if he overcame legal challenges, doing so would hurt U.S. consumers and the nearly 5 million Americans whose jobs depend on the half-trillion dollars worth of yearly bilateral trade.

What he ought to do: If he wants to reduce the illegal immigrant population -- nearly half of whom are visa overstayers, not border-jumpers -- Trump should invest in mandating employers to use the E-Verify system for screening legal workers and get a long-promised biometric entry/exit tracking system in place. Cracking down on corruption in the border patrol would also help. He’d still have a lot left over to strengthen the existing border, including new infrastructure that speeds legitimate travelers and commerce. By all means, re-open NAFTA (both Mexico and Canada are open to “discussing the agreement). Stiffening labor and environmental standards -- as Obama proposed -- would help workers on both sides of the border. And the treaty didn’t encompass energy or intellectual property and new issues such as digital commerce and cyber-security. But forget the stiff punitive tariffs. Both sides would lose from a trade war.  

The most likely outcome: Trump may have to build at least a small portion of his wall, if only for the cameras. Even House Republicans are suggesting he scale back his plans. He will probably also back off his threats to pull out of NAFTA, but will push hard to renegotiate it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.