President Donald Trump announced on Twitter that he is placing a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports, effective June 10, to pressure the country to do more to crack down on the surge of migrants trying to cross the U.S. border.
He said the percentage will gradually increase — up to 25% — "until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied."
The decision showed the administration going to new lengths, and looking for new levers, to pressure Mexico to take action — even if those risk upending other policy priorities, like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade deal that is the cornerstone of Trump's legislative agenda and seen as beneficial to his reelection effort. It also risks further damaging the already strained relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, two countries whose economics are deeply intertwined.
Trump made the announcement by tweet after telling reporters earlier Thursday that he was planning "a major statement" that would be his "biggest" so far on the border.
"On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP," he wrote. "The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied."
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador responded in a public letter late Thursday, telling Trump that "social problems are not solved with duties or coercive measures" and alluded to the United States' history as a nation of immigrants. "The Statue of Liberty is not an empty symbol," he wrote.
Obrador also said he was dispatching his foreign relations secretary to Washington on Friday to try to negotiate a solution.
In his growing fury over an increase in border crossings that he has likened to an "invasion," Trump has blamed Mexico for failing to stop the flow of asylum seekers from countries like El Salvador and Honduras who pass through its territory. And he has been itching to take increasingly radical, headline-grabbing action on the issue, which he sees as critical to his 2020 campaign because it energizes his base.
"The tariffs certainly put the USMCA on ice," said Gary Hufbauer, an expert in trade law at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who panned the move but said Trump does have the legal authority to impose the tariffs under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by citing a national emergency.
"The drama is legal, but it's preposterous," he said.
Daniel Ujczo, a U.S.-based international trade lawyer, said the threat would likely slow the deal's progress in Mexico and put U.S. lawmakers who want to vote "yes" in a difficult position because companies in their districts will end up paying the tariffs.
Still, Ujczo and others wondered whether Trump — who has a habit of creating problems and then claiming credit when he rushes in to solve them — would go through with the threat.
"This seems more theater and tactics than a strategy to solve the migration crisis and rebalance North American trade," Ujczo said.
On a briefing call with reporters Thursday evening, administration officials said Mexico could prevent the tariffs from kicking in by securing their southern border with Guatemala and entering into a "safe third country agreement" that would make it difficult for those who enter Mexico from other countries to claim asylum in the U.S.
"We're going to judge success here by the number of people crossing the border and that number needs to start coming down immediately, in a significant and substantial number," said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
It drew a withering response from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a usual Trump ally, who slammed it as "a misuse of presidential tariff authority" that would burden American consumers and "seriously jeopardize passage of USMCA."