President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise that Mexico would pay for a border wall, now misleadingly claims he never meant that Mexico would “write out a check” to pay for it. His campaign at least twice laid out specific methods of direct payment.
In March 2016, the campaign threatened to halt remittance payments from Mexicans working illegally in the U.S. to relatives back home as a way to compel Mexico to make “a one-time payment of $5-10 billion” for the wall. The campaign also proposed increasing visa fees on Mexicans coming to the U.S. as a means to pay for the wall.
In 2015, the campaign released a position paper on immigration that said “Mexico must pay for the wall and, until they do, the United States will” take specific steps, such as threatening to “impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages.” The campaign paper also suggested increased tariffs and fees on Mexico to raise money for the wall.
And even in the early days of the Trump presidency, his administration was talking about more direct reimbursement for the wall through tariffs on imported Mexican goods.
Trump Shifts His Story
During the 2016 president campaign, Trump repeated over and over that Mexico would pay for the border wall.
In recent weeks, Trump has claimed that Mexico is paying for the wall “indirectly,” through the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement signed on Nov. 30. As we have written, that’s a dubious claim.
Trump repeated that claim when meeting with reporters before flying to the southern border on Jan. 10. He then went on to say that he never promised Mexico would “write out a check” to pay for the wall.
Trump, Jan. 10: Just a couple of things because I know the fake news likes to say it. When during the campaign, I would say Mexico is going to pay for it. Obviously, I never said this, and I never meant they’re gonna write out a check. I said they’re gonna pay for it. They are. They are paying for it with the incredible deal we made called the United States Mexico and Canada USMCA deal.
We couldn’t find any instances in which Trump specifically called on Mexico to cut a check to pay for construction of a border wall. In campaign speeches, Trump was usually short on specifics about how exactly Mexico would pay. For example, in a campaign speech in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on Oct. 30, 2016, Trump simply said Mexico will “be very happy to pay for the wall” because “we have tremendous trade deficits with Mexico.”
Though Trump was vague on the point, his campaign at least twice laid out specific methods for direct payment.
The Trump campaign issued a position paper during the Republican primary outlining some of the ways Mexico might be forced to pay for the wall, including impounding remittances from Mexicans living and working in the U.S. illegally or via increased fees on border-crossing cards, NAFTA worker visas and at ports of entry to the U.S.
Trump campaign position paper, 2015: Mexico must pay for the wall and, until they do, the United States will, among other things: impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards – of which we issue about 1 million to Mexican nationals each year (a major source of visa overstays); increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico (another major source of overstays); and increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico [Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options].
On March 31, 2016, the Trump campaign sent a two-page memo to the Washington Post under the subject line, “Compelling Mexico to Pay for the Wall.”
The memo outlined a plan to use — or threaten to use — the Patriot Act to compel financial institutions to “demand identity documents before opening accounts or conducting financial transactions.” The idea was to stem the flow of remittances being sent from Mexicans living and working in the U.S. illegally to their families back home.
The campaign estimated that Mexican nationals send $24 billion a year to people in Mexico and “the majority of that amount comes from illegal aliens.”
“It’s an easy decision for Mexico,” the memo states. “Make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year.”
That sure sounds equivalent to demanding Mexico cut a check.
The memo to the Washington Post lays out a hypothetical three-day plan to coerce the Mexican government to pony up billions of dollars to pay for the wall.
Trump campaign memo, March 31, 2016: On day 1 promulgate a “proposed rule” (regulation) amending 31 CFR 130.121 to redefine applicable financial institutions to include money transfer companies like Western Union, and redefine “account” to include wire transfers. Also include in the proposed rule a requirement that no alien may wire money outside of the United States unless the alien first provides a document establishing his lawful presence in the United States.
On day 2 Mexico will immediately protest. They receive approximately $24 billion a year in remittances from Mexican nationals working in the United States. The majority of that amount comes from illegal aliens. It serves as de facto welfare for poor families in Mexico. There is no significant social safety net provided by the state in Mexico.
On day 3 tell Mexico that if the Mexican government will contribute $__billion to the United States to pay for the wall, the Trump Administration will not promulgate the final rule, and the regulation will not go into effect.
The memo goes on to talk about other ways to “compel Mexico to pay for the wall.” Among them:
- Trade tariffs. The campaign suggested tariffs would be particularly effective because Mexico enjoys a trade surplus with the U.S.
- Cancelling visas. That could include immigration visas but also “business and tourist visas for important people in the Mexican economy.”
- Visa fees. “Even a small increase in visa fees would pay for the wall,” the campaign wrote.
Impounding or freezing remittance payments would likely be problematic. For starters, it might violate peoples’ civil liberties, a point then-presidential candidate Jeb Bush made when pushing back against Trump’s plan in August 2015. A Government Accountability Office report in 2016 also noted that officials from the largest money transmitters raised concerns that “asking for information from remittance senders about their legal immigration status in the United States” would “likely contribute to pushing remittances out of formal financial systems to less detectable methods.”
In the first month of Trump’s presidency, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump was mulling a 20 percent tariff on all imports from Mexico to pay for the wall.
“We can do $10 billion a year and easily pay for the wall just through that mechanism alone,” Spicer told reporters aboard Air Force One on Jan. 26, 2017. “That’s really going to provide the funding. This is something that we’ve been in close contact with both houses [of Congress] in moving forward and creating a plan.”
(The plan outlined by Spicer also might have been problematic, as the New York Times noted, because it “would violate the North American Free Trade Agreement and most likely the rules of the World Trade Organization.”)
Spicer later said that was just one option, and Reince Priebus, then the White House chief of staff, said there were “a buffet of options” under consideration.
For its part, Mexican leaders have been adamant that Mexico will never pay for the wall.
In a phone call with then-Mexican President Peña Nieto on Jan. 27, 2017 — according to a transcript obtained by the Washington Post — Trump said they were “both in a bit of a political bind” with Trump saying Mexico would pay for the wall and Nieto saying Mexico would not. And so, Trump said, if reporters ask, “Who is going to pay for the wall?” they should both agree to say, “We will work it out.”
Trump’s rhetoric took a turn in early 2018 when he told the Wall Street Journal that Mexico could pay for the wall “indirectly” if the U.S. makes a “good deal” renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. “Say I’m going to take a small percentage of that money and it’s going to go toward the wall,” Trump said. “Guess what? Mexico’s paying.”
And that’s the position Trump has taken ever since the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement was signed on Nov. 30 by the leaders of all three countries (though it still must be ratified by Congress). Just prior to flying to the Southwest border on Jan. 10, Trump told reporters that Mexico is “paying for the wall indirectly many, many times over by the really great trade deal we just made.”
But economists told us that while the new trade agreement is arguably a slightly more advantageous deal for the U.S. than NAFTA, it won’t generate enough additional federal revenues to pay for the border wall, and shouldn’t be construed as Mexican payments, anyway.
Although Trump has consistently insisted Mexico would pay for the wall, the details of how exactly that will happen have evolved over time. And while Trump may not have specifically said Mexico would “write out a check” to pay for the wall, his campaign proposed ways to force Mexico through economic pressure to make a direct payment for the wall.