WASHINGTON (AP) -- In a surprise announcement that could compromise a major trade deal, President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he is slapping a 5% tariff on all Mexican imports, effective June 10, to pressure the country to do more to crack down on the surge of Central American migrants trying to cross the U.S. border.
He said the percentage will gradually increase - up to 25% - "until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied."
The decision showed the administration going to new lengths, and looking for new levers, to pressure Mexico to take action - even if those risk upending other policy priorities, like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a trade deal that is the cornerstone of Trump's legislative agenda and beneficial to his reelection effort.
Trump made the announcement by tweet after telling reporters earlier Thursday that he was planning "a major statement" that would be his "biggest" so far on the border.
"On June 10th, the United States will impose a 5% Tariff on all goods coming into our Country from Mexico, until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP. The Tariff will gradually increase until the Illegal Immigration problem is remedied," he wrote.
Trump has accused the Mexican government of failing to do enough to halt the flow of asylum-seekers from countries including El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. And he has been itching to take increasingly radical, headline-grabbing action on the issue, which he sees as critical to his 2020 campaign because it energizes his base.
But the sudden tariff threat comes at a peculiar time, given how hard the administration has been pushing for passage of the USMCA, which would update the North American Free Trade Agreement. It comes less than two weeks after Trump lifted import taxes on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum, a move that seemed to clear an obstacle to passage of his North American trade deal, and the same day that both the Mexican government and the Trump administration began the process of seeking ratification. The deal needs approval from lawmakers in all three countries for it to be ratified.
Daniel Ujczo, an international trade lawyer based in Ohio, said the move puts lawmakers who want to vote "yes" in an awkward position because companies in their home states will end up paying the tariffs. And it could slow down the deal's ratification in Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Thursday requested a special session of the Senate, which is in recess, to consider the matter.
"The tariffs certainly put the USMCA on ice," said Gary Hufbauer, an expert in trade law at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who said Trump has the power to impose the tariffs under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by citing a national emergency, which Trump did.
"The drama is legal, but it's preposterous," he said.
Still, Ujczo and others wondered whether Trump - who has a habit of creating problems and then claiming credit when he rushes in to solve them - would go through with the threat.
"This seems more theater and tactics than a strategy to solve the migration crisis and rebalance North American trade," Ujczo said.
In late March, Trump threatened to shut the entire U.S.-Mexico border if Mexico didn't immediately halt illegal immigration. Just a few days later, however, he backed off the threat, saying he was pleased with steps Mexico had taken in recent days. It was unclear, however, what Mexico had changed.
Indeed, on a briefing call with reporters Thursday evening, administration officials said there were several things Mexico could do immediately to prevent the tariffs from kicking in, including securing their southern border with Guatemala and entering into a "safe third country agreement" that would make it difficult for those who enter Mexico from other countries to claim asylum in the U.S.
"We're going to judge success here by the number of people crossing the border and that number needs to start coming down immediately, in a significant and substantial number," said acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
He also insisted that tariffs were "completely" separate "and apart from the USMCA" because one pertained to trade and the other immigration.
"The two are absolutely not linked," he said.
In Mexico, trade negotiator Jesus Seade responded with a mix of alarm and dismissal. He called the matter "most serious" but also downplayed the likelihood the tariffs would go into effect.
"It is no secret to anyone that Trump is very active in his use of Twitter and he launches many tweets that are later changed," he said.
The threat drew a withering response from Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, a usual Trump ally, who slammed it as "a misuse of presidential tariff authority" that would burden American consumers and "seriously jeopardize passage of USMCA."
Mulvaney said the White House had briefed some Republican members of Congress on the plan and acknowledged that some __ particularly in the Senate - had raised concerns about the president invoking such powers.
Trump's tariff threat comes at a time when Mexican authorities have been stepping up their efforts, carrying out migrant raids and detaining thousands of people traveling through the country en route to the U.S.
The crumbling city of Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, has become the epicenter of the crackdowns. Thousands of migrants have been stranded in the city because the Mexican government isn't providing them visas that allow them to travel. Authorities have also been clearing out parks of camping migrants and raiding hotels where immigrants were staying.
In addition, the Mexican government has allowed the U.S. to send back hundreds of asylum seekers from Central America and other countries to force them to wait their cases out in Mexico.
But that hasn't satisfied Trump, whose White House laid out an escalating schedule of tariff increases if his demands are not met.
"If the illegal migration crisis is alleviated through effective actions taken by Mexico, to be determined in our sole discretion and judgment, the Tariffs will be removed," the White House said in a statement. Otherwise, the 5% figure will increase to 10% on July 1, to 15% on Aug. 1, to 20% on Sept. 1 and to 25% on Oct. 1, the White House said.
"Tariffs will permanently remain at the 25 percent level unless and until Mexico substantially stops the illegal inflow of aliens coming through its territory," the statement read.
During a visit to Canada on Thursday to promote the trade deal, Vice President Mike Pence voiced optimism, vowing it would be passed this year. Asked by reporters about the impact of possible new tariffs, Pence said that both Mexico and Congress need to do more and that Trump is resolved to make them happen.
"The President is absolutely determined to use the authorities that he has as president to call on the Congress and to call on Mexico to do more to address this humanitarian crisis on our southern border," Pence said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking and Paul Wiseman in Washington, Maria Verza in Mexico City and Rob Gillies in Ottawa, Canada, contributed to this report.
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