WASHINGTON — The last time President Trump vowed all-out retaliation against Mexico for the illegal immigrants crossing the border, he backed off. In April, he gave America’s southern neighbor a year to fix the problem.
It turns out he cannot wait that long.
As he ratchets the pressure back up with threats of a tariff war, Mr. Trump once again finds himself grasping for ideas to deliver on his signature campaign promise: ending illegal immigration, no matter how incendiary or legally dubious. With an election year approaching, he appears increasingly anxious to get a handle on the problem and show results.
Time and again, the president has engaged in a game of geopolitical chicken with Mexico, warning darkly of radical measures that even his own advisers caution him against. His latest scheme would impose escalating tariffs on all imports from Mexico, a move that could blow up the economic relationship with one of America’s closest neighbors. But there was no more guarantee that will be any more effective than his past efforts, or that he will even necessarily follow through with his threat.
“This is yet another flailing about in an effort to effect a change he’s failed to bring about,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, a former career diplomat who served as ambassador to Mexico for the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency. “Every time he sees something like ‘highest total in one week in X years,’ he demands something, and his advisers come up with something even more extreme, and he goes for it.”
Much like his threat to close the border entirely, the tariff plan has drawn widespread opposition from Democrats and prompted a sell-off in the markets. Business executives, investors and many Republicans joined together in condemning the idea, complaining that it would disrupt commerce and raise prices for consumers without actually achieving what Mr. Trump wants.
Even some supporters of tougher immigration policy expressed concern that Mr. Trump was alienating Mexico rather than enlisting its help in addressing the flow of migrants crossing the border. If anything, some said, it could have the opposite effect by prompting Mexico to stop cooperating as much as it already is in trying to reduce the influx.
“Getting them to agree to something like that is going to be difficult,” said Mark S. Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates more restrictions on migrants. “Presumably, any negotiation involves carrots and sticks. I’m just worried this might be too much stick and they might react by reducing their cooperation with us.”
According to Mr. Trump’s announcement, Mexico has until June 10 to take action or face a 5 percent tariff on all goods coming into the United States, with the rate increasing each month until it reaches 25 percent on Oct. 1 if the situation is not resolved. But what exactly would be enough to satisfy Mr. Trump was still vague. Equally unclear was what measures Mexico could take to seal the border with the United States or stop migrant caravans traveling from Central America to try to cross it.
Some who have watched Mr. Trump’s threat-and-retreat approach in the past speculated that he might not actually carry out his plan any more than he did when he vowed to shut the border this spring. He may seize on some concession by Mexico, however meaningful or not, and claim that the threat had the intended effect and therefore did not need to be enacted.
Moreover, some immigration specialists said the cyclical nature of migrant flows could mean a natural reduction over the summer, which he could likewise claim credit for to avoid the tariff war. And political analysts suggested that Mr. Trump may be seeking to reassure his core supporters that he was taking tough action, whether it actually results in the outcome he is seeking or not.
Either way, one thing is clear. Nearly two and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Trump has grown enormously frustrated at his own administration’s inability to stem the flow. Nearly 99,000 people were apprehended crossing the southwestern border in April, the most in any one month since 2007, and some anticipated similar numbers when May’s totals are released.
Mr. Trump has lashed out at his own team in response, ousting Kirstjen Nielsen, his secretary of homeland security, and purging others at the top of the department responsible for guarding the border. He has repeatedly pressed for more action, even disregarding officials who warned that some of the ideas he or his hard-line advisers have embraced were not legal.
The president has repeatedly blamed Democrats for not working with him to tighten immigration laws, especially those dealing with asylum. The administration argues that most asylum claims are illegitimate, made simply to gain entry to the country by people seeking employment and understanding how to game the system.
“At the end of the day, the reason this is happening is our asylum laws reward people who have no real claim to asylum,” Mr. Krikorian said. “In a sense, this plan is Plan B because the Democrats won’t agree to stemming the flow.”
Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, said he took action because no one else would. “We just don’t think Mexico’s done enough and Congress has done even less than that,” she told reporters.
In vowing tariffs, Mr. Trump wants Mexico to stop asylum seekers before they reach the American border, both by fortifying its own southern frontier against migrants from Central America and by agreeing to take back asylum seekers from the United States even if they are not Mexican. In a Twitter post on Friday, Mr. Trump said “they can easily fix this problem.”
But specialists on Mexico said it was not that easy, either politically or logistically. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has his own domestic politics that make it risky to be seen cooperating on immigration with the United States, and especially with Mr. Trump, who opened his 2016 presidential campaign by demonizing Mexicans as rapists and criminals.
For more than two years, Mr. Trump has tried to force Mexico to bow to his wishes, insisting during the campaign that he would compel America’s southern neighbor pay for his border wall, a demand that Mexico unsurprisingly rejected. At one point, he even suggested he would order American troops to shoot at migrants who threw stones. Now he is threatening its economy.
“You can’t insult the national honor of a country of 126 million people and just expect them to bend to your will,” said Jeh Johnson, who was secretary of homeland security under President Barack Obama. “We are slowly tearing down any possibility of a constructive relationship with that government.”
Mr. López Obrador has made a point of trying to lower the temperature with Mr. Trump since taking office last December, and even with the latest threat, he offered a measured reaction. But some analysts said that is bound to change at some point if Mr. Trump continues to provoke the Mexicans.
“This could be that turning point,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank on Western Hemisphere affairs. “It was bound for a train wreck at some moment, but so far, it’s been pretty smooth. López Obrador’s main foreign policy priority was, ‘Don’t pick a fight with Trump.’ But I don’t know if it’s sustainable any more. And in policy terms, I don’t think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to backfire.”
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