Elephants in the Room
Fact Checking Trump’s ‘Alternative Facts’ About Mexico
Trump’s Mexico policy inventions could rupture ties and thus undermine vital U.S. national interests.
Although serial fabrication is currently popular in the White House, we believe facts matter. This is pertinent when examining President Donald Trump’s statements on Mexico. Trump’s many mischaracterizations threaten $500 billion in annual trade, U.S.-Mexico relations, and America’s national interests.
The United States has a vital national interest in continuing to avoid hostile or failed states on its borders. A prolonged crisis with Mexico — not least because of effects on ordinary Americans and U.S. domestic politics — would inevitably divert the administration’s time, attention, and resources away from other U.S. core national interests — including working with allies to contain China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia and Russia’s neo-imperial policies in Europe, as well as to successfully combat international terrorism. While U.S.-Mexico relations have long been stable, Trump’s “alternative facts” could reverse this record. Here we evaluate six of the president’s untrue assertions about Mexico, showing the dangers they pose to the United States and to the U.S.-Mexico relationship.
1. “Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth, and our factories to Mexico….” — Campaign speech on trade in Monessen, Pennsylvania, June 28, 2016.
From 2000 to 2016, the number of U.S. manufacturing plants fell from 398,837 to 345,206 and the number of manufacturing jobs fell from 17.3 million to 12.3 million. Yet while factory flight to Mexico preoccupies the president, most research suggests that improved productivity, not job movement across borders, eliminated the majority of those 5 million lost jobs. A 2015 Ball State University report attributed 87 percent of job losses to productivity gains but only 13 percent to international trade. Economists finding trade-related losses fault competition from China for killing 985,000 manufacturing jobs, and not Mexico, whose exports support U.S. jobs: $0.40 of every dollar of U.S. imports from Mexico originates in the United States, and 63.7 percent of those imports are industrial inputs or investment goods. U.S. firms integrate Mexican and U.S. supply chains to improve efficiency and reduce prices. Attempting to restore jobs with tariffs would jeopardize the positions that U.S. exports to Mexico create, make U.S. manufacturing less competitive, fail to address automation’s effects on employment, and estrange an important trade partner.
2. “NAFTA is the worst trade deal…. Thousands of jobs [are] leaving.” — First presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, Sept. 26, 2016.
From 1994 to 2000, after NAFTA was enacted but before the 2001 recession and the reduction of investment restrictions in China, U.S. manufacturing employment rose from 16.8 million jobs to 17.3 million. While estimates vary, research suggests NAFTA had a modest but positive effect on the U.S. economy. A 2014 study by U.S. International Trade Commission economists found that NAFTA slightly increases national real wages and employment in the U.S. machinery and metal industries, while slightly decreasing employment in the sugar and apparel sectors. Still, for certain regions, especially the southeast, NAFTA has stronger negative wage effects. Nevertheless, protectionist policies would harm consumers and eliminate jobs. Trade-related underemployment can be addressed with adjustment assistance and training programs, but tariffs would cause major economic dislocations.
3. “Our country is out of control. People are pouring across the southern border.” — Republican primary debate, Dec. 15, 2015.
Net migration from Mexico to the United States has been negative since the 2008 recession. The Pew Research Center estimates that the U.S. Mexican immigrant population fell from 12.8 million in 2007 to 11.7 million in 2014. Most exiting immigrants were undocumented. The number of apprehensions of Mexican migrants at U.S. borders also fell from 1,637,000 in 2000 to 188,000 in 2015, reaching a low level not seen since 1969. Trump’s proposal to build a border wall, with an estimated cost of $12-22 billion, would address an issue substantially diminishing in severity.
4. “The Mexican government forces many bad people into our country … and they are drug dealers and … criminals of all kinds.” — Interview with Katy Tur, NBC, July 8, 2015.
Evidence indicates that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens — 4.26 percent of the 1,526,800 U.S. federal and state prisoners in 2015 were non-citizens, even as the U.S. immigrant population share was 13.2 percent a year earlier. Moreover, of the “illegal aliens” convicted of federal crimes in 2015, nearly three-fourths were convicted of immigration-related offenses. Many studies show negative correlations between immigration and violent crime. Additionally, a 2015 American Immigration Council report found that only 2.8 percent of Mexican immigrant men age 18 to 39 were incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of native-born men in that age range and 10.7 percent of those men without college degrees. Moreover, nothing supports the claim that the Mexican government sends criminals over the border. This accusation alienates Mexico, which spends millions of dollars trying to secure its southern border and detain Central American migrants attempting to enter the United States illegally.
5. “Heroin overdoses are taking over our children and others in the MIDWEST. Coming in from our southern border. We need strong border & WALL!” — Tweet, Aug. 27, 2016.
Heroin flows from Mexico to the United States present a significant problem. U.S. heroin overdose deaths in recent years increased nearly 250 percent, from 3,036 in 2010 to 10,574 in 2014, and over three-fourths of heroin authorities seized in 2014 originated in Mexico. However, the United States spends billions of dollars annually on border security without reducing drug deaths. Working with Mexico on programs to reduce corruption and subsidize non-drug crops, which have received only $235 million since 2007, would help more than spending billions of dollars on a wall.
6. “Mexico in some form, and there are many different forms, will reimburse us and they will reimburse us for the cost of the wall. That will happen, whether it’s a tax or whether it’s a payment.…” — First press conference as president-elect of the United States, Jan. 11, 2017.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) faces tough 2018 elections due to rising gas prices and violence — Peña Nieto’s approval rating fell to 12 percent in January. Demanding that Mexico pay for a wall could force the PRI to take a more hostile stance against the United States to maintain power. Beyond trade wars, this could mean decreased cooperation with U.S. law enforcement and border security. Moreover, Trump’s commentary on Mexico has led to peso depreciation and reduced foreign investment. If Trump decreases U.S.-Mexico trade (worth 30 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product) and remittance flows (worth $2 billion per month) he could cause a Mexican recession and reduce Mexico’s ability to address violence and drug crime.
The U.S.-Mexico relationship certainly has challenging problems, but Trump’s policy inventions could rupture ties and thus undermine vital U.S. national interests. “Alternative facts” may excite adoring crowds in political rallies, but they have no place in American foreign policy, including in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Photo credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Robert D. Blackwill is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished scholar at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He was deputy national security advisor for strategic planning, presidential envoy to Iraq, and ambassador to India in the George W. Bush administration.