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Twitter Diplomacy

Misinformation, 140 characters at a time, is no way to conduct economic and trade policy.

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The ongoing Twitter war between the presidents of the United States and Mexico strains the imagination of those who believe serious issues shouldn't be discussed in 140 characters. Or 18 words.

Tweeting, often used as a tool for self-promoters and narcissists, has become an acceptable form of communication, allowing our president (and the president of Mexico) to push out content-free propaganda statements. Those statements have riled up newsrooms around the world, exasperated the leaders' detractors, and nourished the embittered and the bored.

The rising tensions between the two nations recalls a time in the mid-1840s when the U.S. actually invaded Mexico, on false pretenses, and took half of their national territory via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. While we don't anticipate another actual war between the U.S. and Mexico, there are very serious issues facing the two nations: Migration and trade are the most salient stressors in the U.S.-Mexican relationship, with secondary issues that include drugs and crime. With regard to migration, exaggerated numbers and populist rhetoric are the theatrical tactics used to obscure substance.

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Trump has promised to end undocumented migration between our two nations, without any understanding of the socio-economic, political, or historic implications of the migratory process. As a starting point, our current, anachronistic and inequitable immigration system makes it nearly impossible for poor people to "legally" immigrate to the United States from Mexico. The number of Mexicans in the United States is actually lower now than it was eight years ago.

About 55 percent of the approximately 11 million undocumented persons in the U.S. are citizens of Mexico. Of all the undocumented, about 40 percent arrived here through airports and overstayed tourist visas. Trump's solution — constructing a "beautiful" wall along our 2,000-mile border with Mexico — will do nothing to prevent this scenario, and as long as our country's insatiable appetite for cheap labor continues, ingenuity will find its way around, over, and under Trump's $15 billion barrier.

On the second big issue of trade, we must remember that Mexico is the third-largest trading partner of the United States, behind Canada and China. The souring of diplomatic and political relations between the two neighbors makes no sense from a business standpoint, nor does adding a 20 percent tax to Mexican imports, as Trump has suggested. Such an import tax would not be tolerated by consumers or the business community, and Mexicans would retaliate. If Mexico were the 30th-ranked trading partner with the U.S., a 20 percent tax would matter less, but as the third-ranked partner, it's an enormous and complicated situation, one that won't be solved via Twitter.

About $25 billion a year flows from the U.S. to Mexico as "remittance" payments; much of that money ultimately wends its way back to the U.S. as purchases of real estate, vacations, and goods made in the USA. Mexican nationals are the leading tourists in the U.S., and they are vital to the massive U.S. tourism industry. The trade war Trump appears to be planning will be bad for business and will ultimately hurt U.S. interests — political, manufacturing, and social.

History, trade, culture, economics — it's complicated. But Trump hopes the American people will fall for the facile and the false as he explains history in 18 words. On January 27th he tweeted, "Mexico has taken advantage of the U.S. for long enough. Massive trade deficits and little help on the very weak border must change, NOW!"

What needs to change, now, is our leadership in Washington. People need to put down the tweets and take to the streets.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board member at Latino Memphis; Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

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