Having previously tried and failed to convincingly explain how he would achieve his signature campaign promise of forcing Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. border, Donald Trump has unveiled a newly detailed, three-day plan to bend our southern neighbor to his whims. As the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Bob Woodward (!?) report, the Republican front-runner says that he will threaten to block billions of dollars of remittance payments to Mexico using a creative rewriting of U.S. Patriot Act regulations—unless the country consents to his demands.
This mostly seems like an effort to arrest Trump’s recent campaign skid by returning the conversation to his comfort zone—xenophobic rage. Nonetheless, we shall address the merits. Trump’s is not an especially impressive plan. Mostly, it gives me some hope that even if the man does truly have authoritarian impulses, he may lack the sufficient creativity and ruthlessness to be a successful political strongman. (Not that I’d really want to find out.)
Last year, Mexican emigrants around the globe sent about $25 billion worth of remittance payments back home, providing a crucial infusion of cash into the country’s poorer regions. Trump has fixated on those funds as a pressure point he can exploit in order to force Mexico to pay for his wall. But he’s been nebulous on the specifics. In August, for instance, he said he would “impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages” without offering the slightest clue as to how he would do so. Through what mystical means would he divine which remittances were on the up and up and which were not? Shrug.
Now Trump is offering a slightly different, slightly more fleshed-out plan. It hinges on revamping, or threatening to revamp, the Patriot Act’s “know your customer” rules, otherwise known as Section 326, which basically require banks and other financial institutions to ask for a reasonable amount of identification from the people who walk in their doors before letting them open an account. Currently, these regulations explicitly exclude wire transfers from companies like Western Union. That’s where Trump’s three-day plan comes into play.
Day 1: Trump would direct his administration to propose a rewrite of the current regs so that they cover wire transfers, thereby blocking undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. from sending remittances.
Day 2: Mexico “will immediately protest.”
Day 3: Trump will make them an offer they can’t refuse: Pony up a several billion to cover the wall, and the White House won’t follow through and implement the final regulation.
Suffice to say, this is not how the painstaking process of federal rulemaking typically works. And unsurprisingly, Woodward and Costa very kindly called up some legal analysts who soberly explained that Trump’s plan would “surely be litigated,” since it would involve “a large expansion” of banking regulations beyond the actual words of the Patriot Act. A blunter way of putting it: Western Union would probably sue the pants off the Trump administration and lock this issue up in court for years, if not derail it entirely. Section 326 states that the “Treasury shall prescribe regulations setting forth the minimum standards for financial institutions and their customers regarding the identity of the customer that shall apply in connection with the opening of an account at a financial institution.” (Italics mine.) It would not be hard to make a colorable legal claim that, when Congress wrote account, they were talking about things like brokerage and bank accounts, not one-off transactions like sending your grandmother in Oaxaca a birthday gift.
Even if it could pass legal muster, it’s also not clear whether Trump’s regulatory scheme poses that much of a threat to Mexico. After all, “undocumented” immigrants often have fake documentation, such as stolen Social Security numbers and forged ID cards, precisely so they can work and send money back home.
But we probably shouldn’t chase the man too far down this rabbit hole. Should Trump become president, he’s somehow going to try and stop immigrants from sending money back to their families, unless Mexico cries uncle. In turn, I expect former Mexican President Vicente Fox will continue to speak for his nation.