People on vehicles heading to the U.S. queue at the San Ysidro border crossing, in Tijuana, Baja California State, Mexico, on May 31, 2019. [Photo/VCG]

China is not the only victim of U.S. President Trump's passionate love affair with tariffs. On May 30, Trump announced his plan to levy a steadily rising series of tariffs on Mexico in response to the presence of asylum-seeking migrants waiting at America's southern border.

Trump's blunt response to a circumstance he considers a "national emergency" is an extreme overreaction that is detrimental to his stated goals on trade and possibly illegal. It comes at a time when both his own administration and that of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are pushing their legislatures to enact the renegotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA (new NAFTA). Trump portrays himself as a deal maker who will reset America's trade to more favorable terms, but putting up new barriers on Mexico would defeat the whole purpose of all the time spent negotiating.

It would also raise prices for American consumers. Americans are already hurting from the prolonged trade war with China and steel tariffs. Respondents to a recent National Association for Business Economics' Outlook survey rated the chances of a recession hitting the U.S. by the end of 2020 at 60%, and "increased protectionism" was cited as the greatest risk. Trying to fight a trade war on multiple fronts is just asking for trouble.

Trump's justifications for tariffs wear thin. This time, he is not even attempting to make an economic argument. Citing the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), the same act he invoked to take action against Huawei, he claims to have unilateral power to raise tariffs. But the IEEPA only applies when there is a national "emergency." In what sense is there an emergency regarding either Mexico or migrants?

Migrants do not cause national security problems or threaten the sovereignty of the United States. In fact, studies have shown they commit crimes at rates even lower than American-born citizens. Nor are migrants arriving in large numbers. According to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the number of migrants apprehended at the border in 2018 was only one-fourth as many as in 2000. The number has been steadily declining for years.

In the past, restrictions on commerce due to IEEPA have applied mostly to individuals or groups of individuals involved in illegal activities that harm national security. President Bush issued IEEPA restrictions on assets held by terrorists following 9/11, and President Carter issued restrictions on Iran during the hostage crisis in which Iran occupied the U.S. embassy. Rarely have they applied to whole countries, and never has IEEPA been used to justify tariffs (as opposed to asset seizures). Sen. Chuck Grassley, the second-highest ranked senator, stated, "This is a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent."

The Peterson Institute for International Economics, in a paper on the legality of various possible tariff schemes, concluded that the legal justifications under American law for unilateral tariffs applied in this manner are thin. It would face scrutiny in front of the World Trade Organization, too.

Whether or not it is legally-justifiable, it is in no way moral or rational. The problems that are causing migrants to flee Guatemala and Honduras seeking shelter in the United States were not caused by Mexico, and Mexico is itself bearing the brunt of what social and economic costs their presence might bring. Many migrants are staying in Mexico as their asylum claims are being processed in accordance with the "Remain in Mexico" program the country established under pressure from Trump.

Arguably, American policies are partially to blame for the migrant push. American demand is fueling the drug trade that has been a factor in destabilizing home countries. Critics claim Trump's cuts to foreign aid have exacerbated the problem. His constant hype of "caravans" may actually have increased the publicity for others to attempt to migrate.

Yet Trump is not done threatening trade wars. His administration is still in the process of considering tariffs on Japanese and European auto imports. He's the boy who cried "national emergency." When everything is a "national security" threat, nothing is.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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