By Amanda Becker and Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top administration officials said on Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexican imports would not interfere with the finalization of a North American trade pact and were designed to force Mexico’s hand in immigration talks.
Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the tariffs were “not interrelated” with the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, known as the USMCA, awaiting approval by the U.S. Congress.
He expected a 5% tariff on all Mexican goods to take effect on June 10 because “the president is deadly serious about fixing the situation at the southern border.”
Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan said the tariffs would not worsen Mexico’s economic situation and drive more migrants over the border but instead incentivize Mexico to curtail the flow of Central American immigrants that cross through on the way to the United States.
“We need Mexico to step up and do more. And these crossings into Mexico are happening at a 150-mile stretch of their Southern border,” McAleenan said on CNN’s “State of the Union”. “This is a controllable area. We need them to put their authorities down there and interdict these folks before they make this route all the way to the U.S.”
McAleenan said that he wanted Mexico to bolster its own immigration screenings along the country’s southern border, to crack down on the networks that are transporting the migrants throughout Mexico and to enable more migrants to wait in Mexico while they apply for asylum in the United States.
Mexico’s Economy Minister Graciela Marquez said on Sunday she would meet with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in Washington on Monday, two days before the neighboring countries are due to discuss the prospect of tariffs on Mexican goods.
The meetings follow Trump’s move last week to overrule the advice of his top two trade advisers and abruptly impose tariffs on Mexico.
Trump, who is eager to use immigration as an issue for his 2020 re-election campaign, as he did during his 2016 White House bid, has grown increasingly agitated about the situation along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In April, U.S. border officers apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the U.S. southern border, the highest monthly figure since 2007.
Trump called Mexico an “abuser” on Twitter on Sunday and said if they do not “stop the invasion” along the U.S.-Mexico border they will face tariffs.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were both “blindsided” when Trump made the tariff decision, with Lighthizer worried it could complicate approval of the USMCA agreement by Congress, sources told Reuters.
The Trump administration has made passing the trade agreement a priority. After Trump’s announcement on Thursday, a top U.S. Chamber of Commerce official said it was “definitely a roadblock to securing passage of USMCA.”
The U.S. Trade Representative’s office said last week that it will not be administering the Mexico tariffs, as it has done for duties levied on some $250 billion of Chinese goods in Trump’s trade war with Beijing. A spokesman referred questions about the Mexico tariffs to the Department of Homeland Security, which will be the lead agency in the effort.
Trump felt that tariffs have forced Mexico to respond to U.S. trade concerns in the past and his decision to embrace the tactic was supported by Stephen Miller, his hawkish immigration adviser, administration officials told Reuters.
Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has predicted that Trump would ease up on his demands and Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said last week he had begun negotiating with officials in Washington.
(Reporting by Amanda Becker and Valerie Volcovici; additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)