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Why this former U.S. ambassador thinks Trump’s tariffs won’t achieve immigration goals

This spring, around 100,000 migrants per month have been caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. With a proposed 5 percent tariff on imports from Mexico, one of the largest U.S. trading partners, President Trump wants to leverage economic power to reduce that flow. But will the strategy work? Amna Nawaz talks to Ambassador John Feeley, a former U.S. envoy to Panama, for analysis.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    He served as U.S. envoy to Panama from 2016 to 2018. And over his 28-year State Department career, he held senior posts throughout Latin America, including in Mexico. He's now a political analyst for Univision, and joins us tonight from Bogota, Colombia.

    Ambassador Feeley, thank you for being with us.

    I want to ask you now, obviously, this isn't the first time that President Trump has tried to apply pressure to Mexico to act to do more. What has Mexico been doing, if anything, to address the stem of migrants that have been going through their country? And what more can they do before June 10?

  • John Feeley:

    You know, it's a great question, because this is not the first time the president has used sanctions or tariffs.

    He has said very many times before that, I'm a tariff guy, I'm a sanction guy. The fact is that Mexico has actually done quite a lot and has been doing quite a lot.

    We're at a net zero immigration with Mexicans right now, meaning there are more Mexicans returning to Mexico than there are going to the United States, whether undocumented or whether documented — or documented for just regular cross-border travel.

    What they have done is, they have actually hardened their border at their southern border with Guatemala in — along the Rio Suchiate in a boarding crossing called Tapachula. And they have stopped upwards of tens of thousands of Central Americans.

    So, the short answer, there's really not a lot they can do before June 10.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we have these proposed numbers now in the way of tariffs that could go into effect in a very specific way over the next several months.

    What would be the overall impact on those kinds of tariffs on the Mexican economy and on trade between the U.S. and Mexico?

  • John Feeley:


    Well, on the Mexican economy, it's incredibly worrisome. Our supply chains, United States, Mexico and Canada, are incredibly linked. We are, the United States is the number one destination for upwards of 80, 85 percent of Mexican exports.

    As soon as these tariffs go into effect, American importers are going to start to pay more, 5 percent, up to 25 percent if — by October, if the president is not happy with the results.

    What that means is, American importers may now have to make the decision, do I stop importing from Mexicans? That obviously has a very negative effect on Mexican industry. Or do I continue to import from Mexican exporters and pass those costs along to the American consumer?

    I think, in the short run, what will happen is, the supply chains are so integrated, whether we're talking about vehicles, whether we're talking about electronic assemblage, whether we're talking about the agricultural products that come from Mexico, that American importers really aren't going to be able to do anything to change that.

    Whether or not they pass along the 5 percent cost by June 10 is a decision that the American private sector is going to have to make. But the key point here is that it's Americans who actually pay the tariffs. And that's one of the reasons why many of us believe that the president has put himself and his USMCA, as you were just speaking about, sort of in the middle of a circular firing squad, and yelled, ready, aim, fire.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, Ambassador Feeley, clearly, the president is trying to use these tariffs to force some kind of action from Mexico.

    Would a 5 percent tariff, a 10 percent, 15 percent, would that have enough of an effect on Mexico that would force them to take some additional action?

  • John Feeley:

    Well, let's take a look at this from our perspective.

    If the United States has not been able to slow the outflow of Central American migrants coming through Mexico to the United States, I don't know what it is that makes the president believe that Mexico can miraculously do it.

    They have stepped it up quite a bit, but obviously not to his satisfaction. Take a look at the response from President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Almost immediately, he drafted a two-page letter.

    And, in that letter, he appealed to President Trump's higher angels, if you will. He gave him almost a civics lesson, saying, that Statue of Liberty shouldn't just stand for nothing and be an empty symbol.

    The Mexicans really don't have the ability to put up a wall. It's a porous border down there along Central America. They have been cooperating. And it's very clear that President Lopez Obrador doesn't want to fight. He has said that openly.

    So what he's done is, he's dispatched his foreign minister to Washington, and he's going to meet with Secretary Pompeo next week.

    Now, I have to be honest. I don't know this, but I strongly suspect that Secretary Pompeo and the — I certainly know his lower staff who work on Western Hemisphere affairs, they were blindsided by this. They had no idea that this was coming.

    So I think the few days is probably for Secretary Pompeo to prepare, as much as it is for Marcelo Ebrard, the foreign minister of Mexico, to prepare.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ambassador Feeley, I have to ask you.

    I have seen firsthand the impact on the U.S. system from this influx of families and children that are coming. And the numbers are undeniable. The U.S. system is being taxed in unprecedented ways. It has not responded to that taxation.

    And, as a result, a lot of these families and children are suffering, as we reported earlier in the show. We have heard from the Trump administration that these are now desperate times. And desperate times call for desperate measures.

    So, we only have a few seconds left, but I want to get your response to that, that the administration is going to say they're just doing everything they can to try to stem the flow of people. What do you say to that?

  • John Feeley:


    I would say, why don't you, instead of putting tariffs on, take the $87 billion tax that these tariffs, if they go into effect, will represent to the American consumers, and send down 3,500, instead of 350 immigration judges?

    That way, you can process these cases almost immediately. Instead of setting up detention facilities, set up expeditionary courtrooms down there, so you can hear these asylum cases.

    We already know that about 80, 85 percent of these asylum cases are rejected, because these desperate people from Central America are not qualified under asylum law. And that's what they're asking for. And that's what's allowing them to say.

    So I think that there are other, better ways to do this, than to simply use apples and oranges, take what is a trade mechanism and a trade tool, and apply it to a migration issue that is undeniably difficult.

    Nobody denies that humanitarian crisis along the border. But it is my opinion that the crisis has been aggravated by the manner in which the Trump administration has decided to use only carrots and no sticks. If we got more judges down there, if we expanded the processing, if we were able to use other facilities down along the border to be able not to hold these people indefinitely, but to process them expeditiously, I think you would have a much better resolution of the current situation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I see you meant there only sticks and not carrots as well.

    Ambassador John Feeley, joining us tonight from Bogota, Colombia, thank you very much for your time.

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