Mr. Trump has repeatedly tied the issues together, saying he will scrap the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement unless Mexico does more to stop the flow of people headed north across its territory.
But a 2015 law Mr. King helped author, intended to prevent President Obama from boosting immigration as part of trade pacts, is preventing Mr. Trump from using trade deals to reduce the immigration rate.
Mr. Trump’s prime motivation in tackling NAFTA is to correct what he calls a bad trade deal. It was a top campaign promise to stop the exodus of U.S. factories and manufacturing jobs to low-wage Mexico.
As the talks enter the final stages, Mr. Trump has increasingly mixed the immigration and trade issue, despite restrictions on executive authority to make trade deals.
“Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S. They laugh at our dumb immigration laws. They must stop the big drug and people flows, or I will stop their cash cow, NAFTA. NEED WALL!” he tweeted this month.
Any immigration agreements between the U.S. and Mexico can’t be in the trade deal, including reducing the number of guest worker visas or creating arrangements for immigration enforcement.
Mr. King, Iowa Republican, said he was glad that his provision stopped Mr. Trump from putting immigration provisions in NAFTA, even though he agrees with the president’s tough immigration policies.
“There are other ways to do immigration — not through trade,” Mr. King told The Washington Times. “The president can throw anything into the negotiation that he chooses, but when they write a treaty, they can’t be writing ‘immigrate’ into that treaty because my language prohibits it.”
He said he did so to protect Congress’ constitutionally enumerated power to write immigration law.
Mr. King warned the Trump administration when the NAFTA renegotiation talks opened last year that immigration couldn’t be part of the deal.
In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, the congressman cited the language he tacked onto the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, also known as the customs bill, that says trade agreements “do not require changes to the immigration laws of the United States or obligate the United States to grant access or expand access to visas.”
Mr. King stressed in the letter that he was raising the issue out of concern that the Trump administration would seek to grant more visas, specifically the “TN visas” for temporary professional workers that citizens of Canada and Mexico can get under NAFTA.
He would prefer to have the TN visas stripped from NAFTA in the rewrite.
The restriction, included in a package of legislation granting the president fast-track trade authority, was originally aimed at Mr. Obama as he prepared to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The deal, known as TPP, was a 12-nation agreement among the U.S. and Pacific Rim countries that proponents said would act as a counter to China.
U.S. trade negotiators have often used guest worker visas and other immigration concessions as bargaining chips in cutting trade deals.
A 2008 bilateral trade agreement between Vietnam and the United States shielded from deportation citizens of that communist country who came to the U.S. before 1995. The Trump administration is trying to cancel that arrangement to deport thousands of Vietnamese who are legal U.S. residents but not citizens and have criminal convictions, according to Reuters.
In 2015, there were fears that Mr. Obama would allow TPP to open a floodgate for high-tech workers and other professionals to come to the U.S. Mr. King’s legislation prevented it.
As it turned out, one of Mr. Trump’s first actions as president was to rip up TPP, which he said was another bad trade deal that would ship American jobs overseas.
Michael Camunez, the former U.S. ambassador to Mexico who helped implement the original NAFTA, said the immigration issue — even if not part of the deal — could blow up the negotiations.
“The president is antagonizing the negotiations with his tweeting and his bombastic rhetoric,” he said. “He is trying to threaten and bully the Mexicans in a way that I don’t think they are going to accept.”
Mr. Camunez added, “The outcome depends on one man and one man only, and that is Donald Trump.”
Any agreement for Mexico to step up immigration enforcement on its side of the border would have to be outside of NAFTA, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
“It would have to be a side agreement or an understanding. I can’t see that it is actually going to be part of NAFTA,” she said. “The TN visas could be up for renegotiation because that is a provision of NAFTA. But these other issues such as enforcement measures and how to deal with asylum seekers and things like that — those are not trade issues.”
The pressure Mr. Trump has exerted on the government of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has already paid off.
Mr. Pena Nieto’s government recently intervened against a caravan of about 1,000 migrants headed for the U.S. border, providing transit and humanitarian visas that helped reduce the size of the caravan.
Mexican officials insisted they were not bowing to pressure from Mr. Trump.
“There is no way the Mexican government can escape the perception that they took action on the caravan because of being prodded by Trump,” said Ms. Vaughan. “They never would have stepped in to head off the caravan without Trump drawing attention to it. It just wouldn’t have happened.”
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