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Bringing Mexico to Its Knees Will Not “Make America Great Again”

Mexico City.

Tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets, marches and roadblocks snarling transit across the country, looting of supermarkets and plummeting currency. That’s a snapshot of Mexico today.

Not all the current chaos can be attributed to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. But a lot of it can. Trump used Mexico as a punching bag to show off his muscle. Not since the Cold War has a foreign nation been singled out as the cause of so many domestic woes–real and perceived.

The wall between Mexico and the United States symbolized the central narrative of a campaign that was openly racist and xenophobic in a way that most people thought was beyond the realm of acceptable politics.

It went like this: ‘We, the real Americans, are being pushed around, humiliated and robbed by immigrants. They come from abroad, and they hide within our borders. They are the cause of unemployment, wage stagnation, dwindling public resources and the loss of American identity and greatness.’

Mexicans took the brunt. Never mind that Mexicans are less than half of unauthorized immigrants in the country, or that net migration is negative—more Mexicans leave the U.S. than arrive. Not only were Mexican immigrants portrayed as a security hazard and job-stealers, Mexicans who stayed in Mexico were also the villains, as the supposed benefactors of the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The reality is that undocumented migrants pay nearly $12 billion in taxes into public coffers–much more than they take out. But this is post-facts politics. Trump’s world divides into winners and losers, and somehow, bizarrely, Mexico was portrayed as the winner and the U.S. the loser and something had to be done about that.

“Build the Wall!” rose as a battle cry at Trump rallies across the country.

Trump’s punish-Mexico proposals are unprecedented: build a wall the entire length of the U.S. southern border; prevent or tax remittances to force Mexico to pay for the wall; deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, among them some 5 million Mexicans; slap a 35% tariff on products made in Mexico and sold in the U.S.; increase aerial surveillance and triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on the southern border; imprison immigrants through the use of private detention centers; eliminate President Obama’s DACA program that allows students brought to the country as children to remain with renewable visas; end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented workers; expand e-verify and employer sanctions; and renegotiate NAFTA with the threat of withdrawing altogether.

These measures, even if only partially implemented, would have a devastating and almost immediate effect on Mexico. Since the election, far from backing off, Trump has knuckled down on his extreme anti-Mexico campaign promises.

The return of hundreds of thousands of migrants could send the nation into a tailspin. Mexico since NAFTA has experienced low growth and has been unable to provide employment to its existing population, with nearly 60 percent forced to work in the informal sector.

Since presumably many of the deportees will be returned to the border, Mexico’s already over-burdened northern border cities could see basic infrastructure collapse and a rise in social tensions. This collapse will create ideal conditions for organized crime for forced recruiting, extortion and human trafficking. The state-mandated separation of families will scar the lives of generations of children.

Trump’s plan to cut off remittances to force Mexico to pay for the wall threatens the survival of poor Mexicans, particularly in the countryside where thousands of families only get by thanks to money sent by relatives working in the United States. Last year remittances to Mexico came to some $24 billion dollars—higher than oil income. Punishing the poorest would generate greater out-migration, and push the most vulnerable families up against the wall—literally.

Where it’s most difficult to gauge impact, but potentially very damaging, is trade. U.S.-Mexico trade stands at  $584 billion a year. U.S. exports to Mexico support more than a million U.S. jobs. Trump has proposed a 35% tariff on the importation of cars assembled in Mexico and sold in the US. Since the election, criticism from Trump contributed to Ford’s decision to cancel a $1.6 billion dollar investment in Mexico and he has tweet-threatened Toyota and BMW with the 35% tariff to get them to pull out too. This creates a chilling effect on new Foreign Direct Investment in Mexico and jeopardizes existing operations.

The proposal to renegotiate or withdraw from NAFTA to protect U.S. sectors and inhibit or punish foreign investment could decimate entire Mexican regions and local economies overnight.

Trump’s winner-take-all vision doesn’t consider negative impacts for Mexico. “Mexico needs access to our markets much more than the reverse, so we have all the leverage and will win the negotiation,” his states. But if Mexico “loses”, does the United States really “win”?

The unilateral renegotiation and the protectionist measures Trump calls for would logically trigger a quid pro quo reaction from Mexico. With all the dire warnings of a trade war with China, few have stopped to consider what a trade war with the nation’s third-largest trade partner would mean. It won’t be pretty. For Mexico, with 80 percent of its exports to the United States, it could lead straight into economic crisis and social instability in a nation already wracked by poverty and drug war violence.

The Mexican government has responded to these dire scenarios with empty promises to expand U.S. consulate services, offer limited private-sector jobs for returnees and seek to cozy up to Trump. Instead of challenging Trump on proposals that violate international human rights and trade laws, Peña Nieto vows to engage in a friendly dialogue with Trump while battening down the hatches at home. Anticipating a hole in the 2017 budget due to lower investment, interruptions in remittances and loss of US markets, the Peña administration has announced austerity programs that affect the average Mexicans but ignore the vast resources lost in corruption, waste and propping up Peña’s image. In this context, the nearly 20% hike in gas prices this January that sparked massive protests is a hedge against Trump effects.

Mexicans want to see a much stronger reaction—that doesn’t involve making the people pay. In social media and in the streets, they’re demanding that the president stand up to the wall and the threats of deportations.

A declaration of more than a hundred Mexican grassroots organizations states their “absolute repudiation of the anti-Mexico, anti-migrant and anti-woman policies of Donald J. Trump, President-Elect of the United States”. The organizations of small farmers, migrants, women, families of the disappeared and human rights activists warn that even the partial implementation of Trump’s policies “would lead us to a serious humanitarian emergency and severe economic crisis, worsen the current human rights situation, increase poverty and cause a collapse of infrastructure on the borders.”

Even if one feels no compassion for a pending human tragedy south of the border, this is simply not a positive scenario for the United States. The U.S. and Mexico share the most integrated region in the world. Millions of lives and livelihoods depend on the binational relationship. We’re neighbors, crossborder families and friends; we live in a vibrant and dynamic relationship that has existed over centuries.

Sure, that relationship—from NAFTA to the U.S. immigration system—has aspects that need to be fixed. But these are challenges for both nations and their people to resolve. They don’t merely come down to ‘Mexico is the bad guy’.

And if the president-elect really believes they do and rolls out his anti-Mexico measures, Mexico’s impending crisis will hurt us all.

More articles by:

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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