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Mexico Responds To Trump's Tariff Threat


President Trump says he will impose pain if Mexico does not stop migration to his satisfaction. One open question is, who will feel that pain? The president made a demand last night for Mexico to block migrants at the U.S. southern border or the United States begins imposing tariffs starting at 5% and climbing to 25 by this fall on everything that Americans buy from Mexico. This tax increase on American companies and consumers would begin next month.

Well, how does it look from Washington? And how's it look from Mexico? Let's begin with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. She is on this side of the border.

Hi there, Tam.


INSKEEP: So if there is a tariff on everything from Mexico, what kinds of products are we talking about here?

KEITH: Everything, absolutely everything from avocados to cars. Everything that comes into the U.S. from Mexico would have a tariff placed on it. And a lot of products go back and forth across the border. Cars, given this deeply intertwined system now, are built both - on both sides of the border, the same car.

INSKEEP: That's a good point. So is it legal for the president to impose tariffs on those products, on everything in this intertwined economy, as you say, for this particular purpose?

KEITH: So what the president is doing is invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. It has never been used in this way before to impose tariffs. That's according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. In the past and currently, it's used to do things like freeze assets connected to Iran or international terrorism. That's a more common way that it's used. But in this case, the White House is saying that this is a humanitarian and national security crisis.

The president is deeply frustrated - and his administration - by high numbers of Central American migrants crossing the border, including families and unaccompanied children seeking asylum. And they say Congress isn't acting quickly enough. And so they are trying to put pressure on Mexico to fix it from their end.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask about Congress? There's already been some concern expressed by Republicans, powerful Republicans like Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for example, who put out a statement saying this is a bad idea. It's going to threaten your own trade agreement with Mexico, Mr. President. And we hope you don't go through with this threat. Grassley's statement refers to it as a threat, not something the president is actually doing. Is it just a threat?

KEITH: Well, until June 10, when the tariffs would begin to slowly go into effect - right, it is just a threat until it happens. And even Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, is saying, we hope we don't have to get to this. We think there are things that Mexico could do now to fix this and it wouldn't have to happen. And we should just say that there is a pattern with President Trump of creating a crisis or, you know, doing something that sets the whole world at unease and then coming get back in and trying to fix it.

INSKEEP: That was NPR's Tamara Keith a little bit earlier in Washington. And now let's go to Mexico City. NPR's Carrie Kahn is there. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is Mexico's president saying?

KAHN: Well, he speaks every morning at his weekday press conference. And he spoke - this was the first topic today. And he reiterated a lot of what he had put down in that letter that he sent to Trump yesterday. He did add that he has not received a response yet. He says that Mexico will not be provoked. We will act with prudence and out of respect and respect for President Donald Trump. He said he's sending his foreign minister to Washington to talk with administration officials and show them that Mexico is living up to its migration responsibilities.

INSKEEP: Oh, so his argument is, we're doing enough, what are you talking about?

KAHN: Well, he also said that you cannot attack this social economic problem with just tariffs and duties and economic measures. He said this is a socioeconomic problem that must be dealt with, the misery that these people are facing. They left their homes not out of - because they wanted to. They left because they had to, because of violence and poverty. And he says, we must - we cannot trample on their human rights and we will not.

He said - he took a swipe at Trump in his letter last night, condemning what he said were nationalistic approaches. He said that the slogan America first is a fallacy and that universal brotherhood will prevail over national borders and that the Statue of Liberty is not an empty symbol.

INSKEEP: So listening to this, I hear rival definitions of what the problem is that ought to be solved.

KAHN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Mexico's president is saying this is an economic problem. It's a security problem for people primarily in Central America, and they're desperate. And they're going to head for the United States unless those issues are resolved. President Trump is identifying this as a problem of Mexico failing to do its job.

The logic of imposing tariffs is the idea that Mexico isn't trying very hard, which is something the U.S. explicitly accuses Mexico of - not trying very hard to stop migrants from coming through. They want Mexico to feel pain or be humiliated and try a little bit harder.

This is something you've reported a lot over the years. Is there a case to be made that Mexico doesn't do very much to prevent migrants from flowing through Mexico to the United States?

KAHN: Well, you have to remember that Mexico doesn't have the resources that the United States has. If you look at the southern border between Mexico and Guatemala, there's very little enforcement there. But Mexico has deported, at times, more Central Americans than the United States has on a monthly basis.

So Mexico believes that it is trying to do as much as it can, but the numbers that are coming across are increasing and have overrun Mexico's abilities to tackle this problem. There's also corruption in the immigration force that has troubled them. And mostly it's a resource issue.

There are now thousands of Mexican - thousands of foreign nationals, Central Americans, Africans, Cubans and Haitians that are waiting along the southern border and also at the northern border in Mexico trying to get into the United States. And Mexico is trying to deal with the situation.

You know, a lot of Mexicans themselves, especially in the southern states, which are the most economically depressed in the country, are really struggling with this influx too. And you see a lot of change in the attitudes of Mexicans themselves, especially in the southern states, towards the migration that's coming into the country.

INSKEEP: Carrie, we've also heard in today's program from Brandon Judd. He's the head of the Border Patrol union here in the United States. And he made an accusation against Mexico or a suggestion about Mexico and the drug trade, essentially saying that Mexicans are making so much money selling drugs to the United States or shipping people to the United States that Mexico as a country doesn't have very much incentive to shut the trade down. Is that at all the way that it looks from Mexico City?

KAHN: I think if you heard from Mexican officials, they would counter that - look at all the numbers of arms that are coming from the United States into Mexico freely without any obstacles from the U.S. government that is fueling this drug war. I think Mexicans are as tired of the drug war as Americans are too, and they're trying to do what they can. But Mexico, again, has limited resources. They have weak institutions, especially when it comes to the judicial system.

There is endemic corruption. And that has been the focus of this new president. That is what he wants to do is he wants to cut down on corruption. He wants to provide jobs and opportunities to people. He thinks that's the way out of this conflict, rather than imposing tariffs and starting these drug - these tariff wars.

INSKEEP: Does the new president, Lopez Obrador, have incentive at this moment to make a deal with the United States or defy the United States, politically speaking?

KAHN: Well, you know, here in Mexico, he has stratospheric approval ratings. And he's taken great strides not to enter in any confrontations with Trump. And that's worked for him pretty well with his base because he's working on domestic issues like fighting corruption and tackling gas thefts and things like that. Those things are what are important and on the minds of Mexicans, and that seems to have been working for him so far.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks for the insights, really appreciate it.

KAHN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Carrie Kahn is in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Carrie Kahn
Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Tamara Keith
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.