President Trump’s surprising announcement to eliminate foreign aid to the Northern Triangle is still reverberating across Washington — and Central America. Desperate to stop the flow of illegal immigration from the U.S. southern border, the White House is enacting aggressive measures and issuing bold threats.
Trump has repeatedly warned that he would close the U.S.-Mexico border if Mexico doesn’t do more to curb the influx of immigrants trying to enter the U.S., although he has yet to do so given the economic repercussions that would cause. But he hopes to make good on another threat: cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the three Northern Triangle nations. While the administration has not specified which programs will be targeted, the State Department has already notified Congress that it will divert roughly $500 million in funds from 2018 and prior years that have yet to be spent.
The president, who has made illegal immigration a hallmark of his administration, is hoping the drastic cuts will spur the governments of these three nations to act. He argues that they have done little to stem the tide of immigrants who are straining resources at the southern border, including caravans made up of families and unaccompanied minors. “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them any more because they haven’t done a thing for us,” the president told reporters last month.
But many experts, including a large number of Republicans, say slashing crucial aid to these fragile states will have the opposite effect — increasing the very crime and poverty that these asylum seekers are fleeing.
Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he sympathizes with the administration’s plight. But he said that one of the “most effective tools” the U.S. has for combating illegal immigration from Central America is foreign assistance.
“This assistance supports the Northern Triangle countries’ efforts to combat transnational criminal organizations like MS-13 that are involved in the trafficking of persons and drugs. U.S. assistance also promotes economic prosperity and strengthens democratic institutions and rule of law,” he said during an April 10 committee hearing on the issue. “This assistance merges security and economic support to create stability in the region and address the root causes of illegal migration.”
Those root causes run deep, including civil wars in the 1980s that left a “legacy of violence and fragile institutions,” according to a June 26, 2018, brief by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “The region remains menaced by corruption, drug trafficking, and gang violence despite tough police and judicial reforms.”
The skyrocketing violence, rampant poverty, lack of jobs and political instability that have plagued the Northern Triangle for years have pushed the region to the brink. Now, the U.S. immigration system is confronted with the fallout as a record number of immigrants seek refuge in America.
While the overall number of people crossing the border has actually declined in recent years — and apprehensions are down dramatically from a high of 1.6 million during the George W. Bush administration in 2000 — the number of migrant families making the trek from Central America has soared.
In February alone, more than 76,000 migrants were taken into U.S. custody, most of them from Central America, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And in March, the number of people crossing the Mexican border illegally hit a 12-year high. Worldwide, the number of asylum seekers originating from the Northern Triangle reached 110,000 in 2015, a five-fold increase from 2012, according to CFR.
The dynamics of illegal immigration have also shifted. In 2000, the bulk of border crossings were made up of migrant men from Mexico looking for better jobs who could be deported more quickly. But the recent exodus has been largely driven by families and unaccompanied minors from Central America whose claims of asylum have to be processed.
As a result of this surge, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the agency is at a breaking point. Because it is running out of detention space and is only allowed to detain minors for so long, asylum seekers are being released into the community while they wait for an immigration hearing, which could take months or years given the current backlog of some 800,000 pending cases.
Trump Hits a Wall
The breakdown at the border has left the administration scrambling for solutions, although it has consistently run into road blocks. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the border and the partial government shutdown earlier this year failed to get the president the billions of dollars he wants from Congress to fund his long-promised border wall. Even if a massive wall were built, it wouldn’t do anything to stop the flood of families reaching U.S. soil because border patrol agents are legally obligated to take them into custody and process their asylum claims.
In response, Trump is pushing for tougher vetting of asylum seekers, raising the bar for them to prove “credible fear” of persecution back home, among other possible measures. Thus far, the president has not revived his policy of separating families at the border, which sparked an uproar last summer. Regardless, any controversial policy changes are likely to run into legal challenges, as they have throughout the president’s term. Most recently, Trump’s experiment to force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are processed was blocked by a federal judge.
Frustrated, Trump has purged top officials from the Department of Homeland Security for failing to implement his hardline policies. Yet no matter who winds up filling those slots, Trump is likely to run into another obstacle: lawmakers, including those from his own party.
That’s because the president cannot unilaterally redirect funding, as he wants to do with aid to Central America. Congress has to sign off on any changes that will reduce resources to those violence-riddled nations, a proposition that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say is counterproductive.
It’s also a precarious time to be asking for any sweeping changes considering that Democrats now control the House and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are still smarting over the president’s national emergency declaration and government shutdown. So, as the budget season kicks into high gear, the Trump White House is on a collision course — yet again — with Congress over the direction of U.S. immigration policy.
When pressed for details as to when Trump’s proposed cuts to Central American aid could take effect and where the money will be redirected to, the State Department did not provide a clear answer. A spokesperson said, “We are still in the process of finalizing the overall allocation of FY 2019 funds…. The State Department and USAID intend to consult with and notify Congress regarding the planned reprogramming of funds, consistent with applicable requirements.”
Although Trump has seethed over migration flows from Central America, foreign aid requests for El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have remained steady throughout his tenure.
According to a spokesperson for the House Appropriations Committee, the president’s fiscal 2020 budget included a request of $445 million for all of Central America, including no less than $250 million in bilateral assistance for the Northern Triangle. The 2020 request is slightly higher than last year’s request of $435.5 million.
Congress has allocated much higher figures. While lawmakers approved $655 million in fiscal 2017 and $615 million in fiscal 2018 for assistance to Central America, the administration has the authority to deviate from those amounts and reprogram the funds for other bilateral assistance purposes. Such authority to redirect the funding, however, is subject to prior consultation with the appropriations committees in the House and Senate. No decisions have been made about future funding levels and conditions regarding assistance to Central America.
The president’s push to cut aid to the Northern Triangle underscores stark differences within the GOP when it comes to Trump’s campaign to curtail government spending. Republicans are hesitant to openly defy Trump, who remains popular with his base. Yet, when it comes to foreign aid, Republicans have consistently rebuffed the White House’s demands to slash the international affairs budget. In fact, rejecting Trump’s draconian cuts to the State Department and USAID have become a routine exercise in Congress.
“The budget sent from the president is always D.O.A. in Congress,” said Francisco Albert, a former staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Albert added that in the Trump era, lawmakers have even inserted more direct legislative language to prevent political appointees from not complying with bills signed into law.
This pervasive skepticism of Trump’s policies and mistrust of his officials — combined with a confrontational Democratic-led House — makes it highly doubtful that assistance to the Northern Triangle will disappear.
In fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) argues that resources should be increased, not cut. “I think we should even do more, and I think that we should make sure the resources are used for the purpose they are designed for, and that is to improve the safety and quality of life of people so they do not feel the urgency to go endanger their families, to travel so far to take the chance for seeking asylum,” she said.
The reasons for seeking asylum are obvious. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras consistently rank among the most violent countries in the world.
According to the June 26, 2018 report by the Council on Foreign Relations, organized crime is a legacy of the civil wars that upended the region for over four decades. When the fighting finally stopped, “a large pool of demobilized and unemployed men with easy access to weapons morphed into organized criminal groups, most notably in El Salvador.”
Meanwhile, U.S.-led efforts to crack down on narco-trafficking routes in Colombia, Mexico and the Caribbean turned Central America into a major transit corridor for drugs, sparking turf wars among rival gangs. The region’s largest gangs, MS-13 and M-18, are estimated to have 85,000 members, according to CFR.
Extortion, kidnappings and endemic poverty also drive Central Americans to make the arduous trek northward. Compounding the problem is widespread government corruption and weak institutions. People neither trust leaders at the top nor police and judges on the ground.
In fact, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says no amount of money will help Central Americans if their leaders squander it.
“It makes no sense to cut off the aid that can improve people’s lives and lessen pressures for out-migration,” he told Time’s W.J. Hennigan for an April 5 article. “But we also need to recognize that all the aid in the world — and we’ve been providing aid to these countries for a long time — is not going to make the difference unless they have leaders with integrity who care as much about addressing the needs of their own citizens as we do.”
The chaos and complexities of the Northern Triangle have vexed previous presidents as well. President George W. Bush focused on increased trade and free market reforms to improve conditions in the region, awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in grants via the Millennium Challenge Corporation. But when levels of migration continued to rise, Bush adopted a “zero-tolerance policy” under which migrants illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were criminally prosecuted and deported, wrote Rocio Cara Labrador and Danielle Renwick in their CFR background brief.
“In its last year, the Bush administration introduced a security assistance package for the region known as the Merida Initiative,” they wrote. “President Barack Obama separated Mexico from the Merida grouping and rebranded it the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Over the years, the United States has provided more than $1 billion in aid through CARSI to help the region’s law enforcement, counternarcotics, and justice systems.”
Like Trump, Obama faced his own migrant crisis in 2014, when a flood of unaccompanied minors swamped the U.S. border. In response, Obama requested a significant increase in economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, advocating for greater cooperation with the three governments and a more holistic approach to address the region’s deep-seated woes. But like Trump, Obama struggled to find a durable solution to the humanitarian challenge at the border.
Trump adopted some of his predecessor’s policies for the region — for example continuing the multibillion-dollar Alliance for Prosperity Plan developed by Northern Triangle governments and the Inter-American Development Bank to improve economic and security conditions in the region.
But in general, the administration has taken a hardline stance on immigration, accelerating deportations, eliminating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, instituting travel bans and ramping up security at the border.
The fact that many of Trump’s more controversial immigration policies have been blocked might actually work to the president’s advantage, allowing him to play up to his base that he’s taking a tough line on immigration but Democrats are standing in his way.
Meanwhile, Democrats may be boxed in by their own progressive, leftwing base, which is pushing for strong pro-immigration policies that might alienate moderate voters.
Statistics and Successes
The partisan grandstanding and gridlock doesn’t bode well for stopping the flow of desperate migrants coming in droves to the United States. While Trump argues that aid to Central America has done nothing to prevent this influx, data suggest otherwise.
A study by Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development found a direct correlation between violence and migration, revealing that for every 10 additional murders in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, six additional children sought safety in the United States.
Another study by the Inter-American Dialogue found that in El Salvador, homicides boost migration by 188 percent. In Guatemala, a 1 percent increase in homicides drives migration by 100 percent, while in Honduras, a 1 percent increase causes a 120 percent jump in migration.
While aid is not a cure-all for the region’s many ills, it has been shown to have a positive impact. Research conducted by Vanderbuilt University found that U.S.-funded violence prevention programs — including community policing, youth mentorship and graffiti removal — resulted in a 50 percent drop in reported homicides in the neighborhoods where the programs were implemented.
Similarly, USAID’s community policing and youth programs with the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in Honduras helped slash homicide rates in at-risk communities by up to 73 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Through Feed the Future, USAID investments in agriculture also helped lift 89,000 Hondurans out of extreme poverty.
Meanwhile, homicide rates and migration flows in El Salvador have plummeted over the last three years. Many — including U.S. government officials — attribute this drop in part to U.S.-led programs that have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to train the country’s security forces, support job prospects for at-risk youth, increase tax collection and improve government transparency, among other measures.
Experts — and lawmakers — say the these results show that aid can work.
“Our assistance is having positive results,” Rep. McCaul said at the House hearing on Central American aid. He noted that he and his counterpart, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have visited the region and seen the results for themselves.
“Last month, I traveled with Chairman Engel to El Salvador and we witnessed firsthand how our assistance is driving at-risk youth away from criminal gangs like MS-13 by providing technical skills and employment opportunities,” McCaul said. “I think the chairman and I came back realizing these programs are highly effective and that cutting these programs would be counterproductive and make the situation worse, not better.”
About the Author
Eric Ham is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.