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Foreign aid to Central America is in limbo because officials are afraid of Trump

The Trump administration is seeking Central America’s help to reduce migration. But Trump keeps throwing tantrums.

President Trump Holds Cabinet Meeting At The White House
President Donald Trump at the White House on June 21, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen signed a regional compact with officials from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to conduct joint police operations and fight unauthorized migration. On Thursday morning, President Donald Trump was (once again) blaming those same three countries, as well as Mexico, for the record levels of unauthorized migration of families into the US.

Trump and his administration often seem on parallel tracks when it comes to Mexico and Central America. Trump threatens outrageous things — like closing the southern border or cutting off foreign aid — and nothing happens.

The US continues to operate ports of entry along the southern border for trade, legal migration, and (limited numbers of) asylum seekers. Congress continues to give the State Department hundreds of millions of dollars a year for Central American aid, with a particular focus on Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the three “Northern Triangle” countries that are now the sources of the majority of unauthorized migration to the US.

But it seems that Trump’s complaints about how those countries “have taken our money for years, and do Nothing” are beginning to affect his administration’s actual policy. The Trump administration is reportedly stalling on disbursing Northern Triangle aid — with a substantial portion of its budget from last year still unspent.

And the reason, according to Politico’s Ted Hesson, is that officials don’t want to make Trump mad.

“People don’t know what the president wants,” an anonymous State Department official told Hesson. “No one wants to do something that looks like they’re not following his guidance.”

The result is that the State Department is entering the second half of the fiscal year without even starting the process to spend a large chunk of its $627 million Central American aid budget, a paralysis that threatens the aid in next year’s allocation too.

In general, it is not a good thing that the fear of a presidential temper tantrum is stopping the federal government from spending money Congress already appropriated.

In the particular case of Northern Triangle funding, Trump’s occasional Twitter rages are threatening to get in the way of a bipartisan consensus that improving conditions in Central America, and making it more appealing for would-be migrants to stay in their home countries, is the best way of reducing unauthorized migration from the region.

Trump’s probably going to stay angry about migration levels for a bit. Administration officials anticipate that by the end of the month, 100,000 people will have entered the US without authorization in March alone. There is no way — hawkish or dovish — to get those numbers down that doesn’t require the cooperation of the very governments Trump bashed on Twitter Thursday. He may need their help almost as much as they need US assistance.

Many Trump officials agree that development aid is important to address “root causes” of migration. Trump does not.

In the grand scheme of the federal budget, we’re not talking about a ton of money. The combined amount of money the State Department is currently sitting on from last year and this year is probably less than the $1 billion the Pentagon just scooped out of a military-personnel account to give to DHS for 57 miles of border wall.

What makes the aid funding important, though, is that — unlike the border wall — a lot of people in both parties agree that it’s needed to reduce migration to the US in the long term, by getting at the “root causes” of why people leave. And with Central American families coming in unprecedented numbers and overwhelming a US immigration system not designed to care for vulnerable people, a lasting solution seems appealing to both immigration hawks (who see it as a good-cop complement to harsher treatment and less leniency for migrants once they arrive) and immigration doves (who see it as a substitute).

Trump administration officials tend to emphasize the economic strife that Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants, who dominate the current influx, face in their home countries, which isn’t a legally recognized argument for asylum. Democrats and advocates tend to emphasize oppression and gang violence, which can be the opening to asylum claims, as causes.

Both issues, in theory, can be solved with aid. Evidence suggests that in the short term, more development aid can actually increase migration as people use the extra money they’re earning to leave for the US. But governing reforms and police assistance that reduce violence can lead to fewer children migrating — and enable the people who do emigrate to more easily be sent back in the absence of a strong asylum claim.

Trump doesn’t see the world this way. His attitude toward Central America and Mexico is all sticks and no carrots — when people are successfully stopped from entering the US, he occasionally praises them, but when they are moving north, he complains endlessly about why they are not being stopped from leaving their countries.

Even as Trump has threatened to zero out aid entirely, though, the officials in his administration actually interacting with Mexican and Central American governments have continued to emphasize the importance of aid. In December, despite Trump’s fulminations over the caravan, the State Department trumpeted a joint agreement with the new Mexican government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to invest billions of dollars in Mexico and Central America (although much of the US contribution was either a double-counting of previous years’ foreign aid budgets, or a promise of private investment through the Inter-American Development Bank).

It seemed, to all appearances, that Trump’s threats were just another act of presidential vaporware — something that never got turned into executive action, like his threats to cut off California’s disaster aid.

According to Hesson, though, the Office of Management and Budget (under Mick Mulvaney, who is also acting White House chief of staff) is slowing down the aid Trump doesn’t want — because officials are worried he will be upset if his threat isn’t carried out.

The US can’t decide whether it trusts Central American governments or not

Trump conflates governments and their people. He thinks governments “send” emigrants to other countries and deliberately choose bad people to send; he wants to reduce migration from “shithole countries” and increase it from countries where people are already more well-off (and white).

One of his administration’s first acts was to ban refugee resettlement for people from certain Muslim-majority countries — even though, in many cases, the governments of those countries are exactly what refugees are trying to flee.

But as much as Trump fumes about closing the border entirely, he can’t simply cut off asylum the same way he cut off refugees. People have a right under international and US law to seek asylum once they’re in the US, and walls don’t stop people from setting foot on US soil. The question is what the US does with asylum seekers.

The Trump administration is arguing for a crackdown, on the grounds that a small minority of people who cross into the US without authorization from Central America actually get their claims approved. While some officials acknowledge that most of the unsuccessful asylum-seekers are still fleeing some sort of need, others paint them as criminal opportunists engaging in widespread fraud — people who only left their home countries to take advantage of US asylum law.

That stance requires painting migrants’ countries of origin, or, sometimes, Mexico as an alternative. as a perfectly acceptable place to be. It doesn’t leave much room for criticizing the human rights record of Guatemala, where the regime used US-made vehicles last year when it kicked out a UN anti-corruption panel, or the inability of Honduran officials to guarantee citizens’ safety from street gangs.

So the Trump administration (and the Obama administration before it) have allied with these countries. When Nielsen signed the compact Wednesday, she told her Northern Triangle counterparts, “America shares common cause with you.”

This isn’t just rhetorical. In the past two years, the annual State Department human rights report has omitted large sections of its entries on Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador that cast doubts about their human-rights record, leaving a sentence about a law on the books, for example, while cutting out the subsequent sentence about how that law was practically never enforced. That matters, because State Department reports are often relied on by immigration judges deciding asylum cases, as one of the only “objective” sources for what is really going on in an applicant’s country of origin.

The easiest way to punt on aid would be for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to refuse to “certify” that Northern Triangle governments have met certain standards set by Congress as conditions of aid, based on things like human-rights violations and corruption.

Those might be fair accusations to throw at the governments in question — certainly, Democrats are skeptical of sending aid to Guatemala right now. But it would also bolster asylum claims of people fleeing those countries.

More urgently, if the Trump administration wants to have a prayer of calming down Trump’s simmering rage over unauthorized migration, they’re going to need some intergovernmental help.

Right now, North American border management isn’t country vs. country. It’s governments vs. migrants.

Trump’s fixation is on the numbers of people setting foot in the US. He argues that instead of talking about migrants “apprehended” by Border Patrol, the US should measure migrants “captured” — even though many of them seek out agents to turn themselves in for asylum. His concern, in other words, is only going to be addressed if people can be repelled from American soil — stopped before they arrive.

If migrants are going to be stopped while they’re still in Mexico — or, for that matter, Guatemala or Honduras — the US will need Mexico (or Guatemala or Honduras) to stop them.

Mexico’s cooperation is especially important. While the current Mexican administration talks a lot about the human rights of migrants and has experimented with making it easier for Central Americans to get temporary visas to travel through the country, Mexican officials are working hard to help the US limit the number of people coming in. They facilitate the “metering” that forces asylum seekers to wait as long as months at ports of entry. They accept some Central American migrants to stay in Mexico to wait for their US court cases.

In January, as a large caravan prepared to cross into a US port in Texas, a group of Mexican law enforcement officials surrounded them and detained them at an empty factory, letting only a few out a day to seek asylum; when unrest broke out at the factory, the asylum-seekers were dispersed on buses to towns further away from the border.

And on Wednesday night, they announced they were going to deploy the military to the isthmus connecting Mexico and Guatemala to “contain” migrants.

The US isn’t satisfied — CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said Wednesday that “we’re going to ask Mexico to do more.” White House adviser Jared Kushner reportedly told a Mexican official last week that American approval of the USMCA trade deal was contingent on Mexico doing more to stop migration, although that’s not a point made by the US senators who need to approve the deal.

Still, the idea that the US and Mexico were at least both committed to development in the Northern Triangle and addressing the “root causes” of migration used to be an important talking point in justifying their cooperation on enforcement. It may have been a fig leaf, but a fig leaf is better than no cover at all.

Trump talks about migration as if a government can simply stop people from leaving just by stomping its foot and saying no. That’s not true at all. It takes a powerful and developed government to fully control the comings and goings of its citizens — and to make sure that its own agents don’t get corrupted. The Northern Triangle governments aren’t even close yet. And the only reason that Mexico has been able to take a hawkish stance toward its own southern border (at the expense of migrants’ human rights) is because of US investment.

Of course, spending money to secure another country’s border isn’t exactly getting at the “root causes” of migration, either — and, as Mexico discovered when a caravan of migrants last fall overwhelmed its forces, it can’t withstand the pressure of a desperate drive north. But it’s still more investment in foreign governments than the president wants to do.

Trump says that there’s no reason to give money to governments that don’t do enough (in his estimation) to aid the border security of the US. He may see what happens to border security when he gets his wish.