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Companies with supply chains straddling the U.S. Southern border find themselves in the crosshairs of a new threat after President Trump pledged to raise tariffs on imports from Mexico.
Just last week, business leaders thought that trade disputes with Mexico and Canada were nearly resolved after the Trump administration sought congressional approval of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
"We just did not see this coming," says Ann Wilson, senior vice president of government affairs for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. "Manufacturers flourish in this country when they have certainty. Now we have a real question about whether that certainty even exists."
Wilson says her industry was relieved last month when the administration lifted tariffs on steel and aluminum from Mexico and Canada. Now, it's all back in flux.
Trump has pledged to raise tariffs on all Mexican products — starting at 5% next week and rising to 25% by October. Wilson says higher tariffs would increase supply costs and hurt car sales, a double whammy. Taken together, uncertainty over trade has been a drag on the U.S. economy.
It's not clear what the latest tariff threats will mean for passage of the president's own trade proposal to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump is using the threats to try to force Mexico to address illegal migration, but businesses say tariffs would hurt both countries' economies and would be counterproductive. And Mexico might impose its own tariffs on American products.
Auto-parts makers — and many other industries that are closely intertwined with Mexico — are reeling from what seems like a sudden about-face by the Trump administration. Clothing prices already spiked after the administration raised tariffs on imports from China by 25%.
Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, says he was on the phone with White House officials discussing the trade deal when he heard about the new tariff threat.
"It was literally at the same time," he says. "It does come as a gut punch in the efforts of those who are trying to get USMCA approved."
In general, Lamar says, tariffs have become too unpredictable. "It is a surreal — [and] in some cases existential — crisis that every day or every couple of days these companies come into work and find that their product may be subject to additional taxes," he says.
Normally, businesses such as clothing manufacturers have months to adapt to tariffs and can optimize their supply chains down to the last button.
David French, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, calls this "tariff engineering."
"Where a pocket is located, what kinds of trim are attached, whether it's button or snaps — all of these things might enter into the kinds of decisions that go into tariff engineering," he says.
But when decisions on tariffs turn on a dime, it's hard to plan.
This is the challenge for Chris Miller, whose job involves vetting and buying meats, cheeses, seafood and produce sold at Mom's Organic Market, a grocery chain based in Rockville, Md.
Depending on the season, the produce aisle relies heavily on imports of Mexican avocados, tomatoes, cucumbers and stone fruit.
"When the Mexican season is in for a lot of these items, that is the primary source," Miller says. He says new tariffs on Mexico would drive up prices on imports from other countries, too.
"If the market goes up as a result of the tariffs, then — in my experience — the Canadian market will most likely follow," he says.
This already happened with frozen fish. Prices increased everywhere after the U.S. raised tariffs on imports from China.
Mom's Organic gets a much wider range of goods from Mexico, so Miller says he isn't sure how consumers might react to the new tariffs — or what the impact on his sales might be.
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