Donald Trump said he might try to withhold the payments illegal immigrants send back to Mexico to force that nation to pay for his border wall, sparking a vehement denunciation Tuesday from President Obama, who called the Republican presidential front-runner’s plans “half-baked” and damaging to foreign relations.
Mr. Trump’s border wall has become a contentious symbol of his insurgent campaign, and his pledge to make Mexico pay for it has drawn fierce denunciations from Mexican leaders who have vowed never to pony up a dime.
Pressed for details by skeptical reporters, the billionaire businessman finally complied, issuing a policy paper on his website detailing three options for making Mexico cover the unspecified costs of additional fencing. He said he would consider imposing trade tariffs, canceling visitor visas issued to Mexicans or, most pointedly, writing rules limiting illegal immigrants’ ability to send some of their earnings back home.
He predicted a backlash from Mexico but said the government there will quickly cave on paying for the wall in order to keep tens of billions of dollars flowing annually and U.S. borders open to legal Mexican visitors.
“We have the moral high ground here, and all the leverage,” he said on his website. “It is time we use it.”
The plans drew swift condemnation from immigrant rights groups, Democrats and Mr. Obama.
When asked about it at a brief press conference, the president mocked Mr. Trump’s proposal as an unworkable scheme that strains relations with neighboring countries.
“I am getting questions constantly from foreign leaders about some of the wackier suggestions that are being made,” Mr. Obama said, taking a sharp detour into the campaign to succeed him.
He said Mr. Trump’s plans and those of Sen. Ted Cruz, who is competing with Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination, are frightening foreign leaders.
The White House did not name the leaders Mr. Obama had spoken to but pointed to comments from Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who last month did say Mr. Trump has harmed relations between the countries.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment on the Trump proposal, but Mr. Pena Nieto’s administration announced that it was replacing its ambassador with Carlos Manuel Sada Solana. He is the current consul general in Los Angeles and is expected to be more combative in asserting the rights of Mexicans living in the U.S.
Mr. Trump has ignited a fierce debate on immigration in the U.S., challenging sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants, vowing to reverse Mr. Obama’s deportation amnesty that has allowed most illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. with little fear of deportation, promising to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants and planning mandatory electronic checks for companies to make sure their new hires are legal.
Perhaps most controversially, he proposed a wall that would expand on about 650 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers on the nearly 2,000-mile southwestern border. Mr. Trump said he would force Mexico to pay for the wall — and he has stuck to that promise despite repeated questions about how he would do it.
In his new document, he seized on several levers of U.S. policy he said he could use as leverage to force Mexico to pay, including threatening tariffs, hiking the cost of visas or even revoking visas for Mexicans, and rewriting the rules for remittances.
Under existing federal regulations, banks are required to verify the identities of those who do business with them. Mr. Trump said he would expand that definition so it includes wire transfer companies and would then write rules requiring the companies to check the legality of their customers.
Mexico received nearly $25 billion in remittances last year, the vast majority of which is believed to come from workers in the U.S. and a sizable chunk from illegal immigrants.
Mr. Trump said given that potential loss to its economy, Mexico would object to the limits and would instead agree to pay for the wall.
Mr. Obama said he doubted it was possible to target the remittances.
“The notion that we’re going to track every Western Union bit of money that’s being sent to Mexico — good luck with that,” he said.
But requiring proof of legal residency for remittances is not a new idea.
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, has introduced legislation in Congress to demand that anyone sending a remittance outside the U.S. prove legal status by showing a driver’s license or passport. His bill would make those who don’t show identification subject to a 7 percent tax on transfers, with the proceeds going to pay for enforcement of the law and for border security.
A Government Accountability Office study this year calculated that such a tax could earn the government as much as $1.3 billion a year, though there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the prediction.
Oklahoma already does a version of that tax, imposing a 1 percent levy on all transfers outside the state. The state waved aside objections from the wire companies, banks and the Mexican government and, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Immigration Studies, the plan “is working like a charm.”