Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, and more than $1 billion in trade goods crosses the border every day. But those numbers can seem large and abstract, and so many a media outlet wrote about a more tangible example: The United States would run out of avocados in a matter of weeks if Trump closed the southern border.
But how effective is focusing on one fruit?
Far from trivializing a potential bilateral trade crisis, some experts say that focusing on the avocado helps drive home the effect Trump’s decision would have on Americans.
“The avocado story is not a new one — it comes up all the time with Mexico trade issues,” William Reinsch, who holds the Scholl chair in international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in an email.
“It’s a handy shorthand way of illustrating how an abstract issue like international trade actually affects people’s lives day by day. … It gets people to understand the interconnectedness of the global marketplace and demonstrates the benefits of globalization. Without it, we’d have to go back to putting butter on our toast,” added Reinsch, who was previously president of the National Foreign Trade Council.
“I think it’s a good example. We need to make U.S.-Mexico trade and trade policy and border management tangible,” said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.
That said, there are downsides of framing even the economic angle of the U.S.-Mexico border around avocados. For one thing, “of course there is way more to the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship — there’s way more at stake in shutting down the border than just avocados,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you just have to let the numbers speak for themselves. Sometimes it’s not a perfect little anecdote that encapsulates everything.”
That’s especially true because, while Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trade partner, it’s the second destination for exports, said Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China. “The U.S. imports much more from China than to Mexico,” he told The Washington Post, but it “exports more to Mexico than China, Japan and Korea combined,” and much of that is in the form of agricultural products. Farmers will feel a closed border, he said, especially because Trump is already in a trade standoff with China.
“Here’s the thing: Whether he goes through or not with this nonsense of closing the border, if nothing else, he’s emboldening the Chinese in their negotiation,” Guajardo said.
Statistics like these — how quickly U.S. consumers would feel the pressure of a border closure when they go to make breakfast — capture only one part of the U.S.-Mexico economic relationship. About half the trade is made up of whole products sold from one country to another. But the other rough half is trade in intermediate parts. According to Wilson, more than $100 billion in parts come into the United States every year to “keep our factories running.” Although avocados could run out in a matter of weeks, factories, he said, would feel the hit of a border closing in two to three days.
Another potential downside of focusing on avocados is that Trump is framing the issue in terms of security, not economics, Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change program at New America, wrote in an email, just as some of his opponents are against his policies not because of guacamole, but on humanitarian grounds. In addition to threatening to close the border, Trump decided to stop sending aid to the Central American countries from which people are fleeing in the first place.
“By claiming that there is a crisis at the border — and maneuvering how they house and treat migrants so that there appears to be one — the president is activating his supporters to believe that the security situation is so dire it justifies suffering economic consequences,” she wrote
“If the stakes are either crime and violence directed against American citizens, as Trump often and erroneously says (since we know immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than the native-born) or the human suffering of families sleeping on gravel in underpasses because of this administration’s choices, worrying about avocados seems rather silly either way.”
Although Trump is making his argument on security grounds, the reality is that there will be an economic element to a border closure, Wilson said. So it’s an argument that should be made to the U.S. public, in addition to, but not instead of, a conversation about migration, he said.
“I actually think that the economic argument to not shut down ports of entry is an incredibly powerful one. I’m not at all uncomfortable making that argument,” he said.
And Mexico cooperates with the United States on security because of the economic benefits of the relationship, said Guajardo, now a senior director at McLarty Associates.
“It’s not as if Mexico gains much by helping the United States on security issues,” he said. “It’s not necessarily where immigrants want to emigrate to. Nevertheless, Mexico cooperates with the United States because we recognize that we have an economic partnership.
“If you start with this nonsense of closing the border, there’s no longer an argument,” he said.
Which brings us back to avocados.
The “specter of trucks of rotting avocados is not a bad metaphor for what happens to a host of U.S. industries if you shut down border crossings,” conceded Hurlburt, who worked in President Bill Clinton’s White House and State Department.