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Trump’s decision to cut off aid to 3 Central American countries, explained

Experts agree that you can’t address the “root causes” of migration without aid. But Trump’s border temper tantrum prevails.

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

After months of threats, President Donald Trump has officially taken steps to cut off aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — the three countries in the “Northern Triangle” of Central America that are the origin point for the current unprecedented wave of family migration to the United States.

On Saturday, the State Department acknowledged in a statement that it had notified Congress it was cutting off aid from past years (fiscal years 2017 and 2018) to the three countries. An estimated $700 million in aid will be affected by the cutoff.

It’s still not clear exactly how the aid cutoff is going to work. According to the Washington Post, embassy officials didn’t know whether the cutoff applied only to money that hadn’t yet been designated for particular contracts with nongovernmental organizations (which is the way foreign aid actually works on the ground, rather than the US writing checks to central governments), or whether they were actually supposed to cancel existing contracts that had already been signed and implemented.

Confusion is par for the course when the Trump administration does things because Donald Trump wants to do them, not because the officials actually implementing the policy think it’s a particularly good idea. And that’s exactly what’s going on here.

Trump and Office of Management and Budget director (and acting White House chief of staff) Mick Mulvaney believe the fact that migrants are continuing to come to the US without papers is evidence on its face that aid isn’t working and should be cut off. Other officials and experts, however — including fellow members of the Trump administration — have emphasized that economic development and improving security are the only ways to address the “root causes” of migration.

And in the meantime, stopping people from reaching US soil to claim asylum — President Trump’s main objective — is going to rely on the continued cooperation of Central American countries and Mexico, the very governments Trump is now antagonizing with the Northern Triangle aid cutoff.

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 reported $700 million the State Department is now cutting off is substantially 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.

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).

The two sides don’t necessarily agree on why people are leaving. Trump administration officials tend to emphasize economic strife (which isn’t a valid argument for asylum under US law); Democrats and advocates tend to emphasize oppression and gang violence, which can open the door to an asylum claim.

But both lack of opportunity and lack of security are long-term problems that foreign aid can theoretically help solve. By working with nongovernmental organizations, the US can help provide everything from food aid to entrepreneurial opportunities for locals; by working with law enforcement on improving accountability and security, meanwhile, foreign aid can reduce violence.

Both of these are long-term plays; no one expects that the number of people migrating to the US will plummet as soon as an aid contract is signed. In fact, in the short term, evidence suggests that more development aid can actually increase migration as people use the extra money they’re earning to leave for the US.

Security aid, however, might actually work more rapidly by reducing violence. And there’s evidence that it has.

One study of child migration found that the communities in Central America that reduced their homicide rates from 2011 to 2016 reduced child emigration as well: A drop of 10 homicides a year caused about six fewer children from that community to be apprehended coming into the US.

This might be happening on a countrywide scale, too. While overall emigration from the Northern Triangle has spiked since last year, emigration from El Salvador has plummeted — which some administration officials attribute to the effects of US security aid there.

The people making decisions in the White House don’t appear aware of this. Mulvaney asked CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday, “If it’s working so well, why are the people still coming?”

That insistence on immediate results — combined with an apparent lack of attention to the differences among countries and between types of aid — is characteristic of Trump’s approach.

Trump conflates governments and their people — and is intent on punishing both

Ironically, some Democrats in Congress have shared Trump’s skepticism of continuing aid to Northern Triangle countries — but for completely different reasons.

Democrats are particularly concerned about the government of Guatemala, which forced a United Nations anti-corruption oversight body to leave the country last year (allegedly using US-supplied Jeeps to do it) and has come under scrutiny for its treatment of activists.

“I support the suspension of assistance, especially security assistance, to individual governments in the Northern Triangle,” said Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA) over the weekend. “Congress has placed a very strong set of conditions on our foreign aid to these governments, and we should hold them accountable when those conditions are not met.”

That’s not what Trump is doing.

Congress requires the State Department to certify that Northern Triangle governments are cooperating on particular things — including protecting human rights and curbing unauthorized migration — in order to allocate many of the foreign aid funds it appropriates for a given year. But the State Department has already given partial certification for 2018, and full certification for 2017 — and is now attempting to revoke that.

If anything, the administration is turning a blind eye to the human-rights records of Northern Triangle governments for the sake of sending their emigrants back more easily.

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, immigration judges deciding asylum cases often rely on State Department reports, as one of the only “objective” sources for what’s really going on in an applicant’s country of origin.

It’s clear that what’s happening now isn’t about State Department procedure, but about Donald Trump.

Before the announcement over the weekend, Politico’s Ted Hesson reported that aid for 2018 was being “slow-walked” because of interference from Mulvaney’s Office of Management and Budget, and because administration officials were worried Trump would throw a tantrum if he knew aid was being spent. After all, Trump had threatened aid cutoffs since last spring. And over the weekend, they finally materialized.

Trump conflates governments and their people. He thinks governments “send” migrants 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 better 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.

So his approach to the Northern Triangle countries — and to Mexico — is to blame the governments for failing to stop the migration of people. It’s all stick and no carrot: When people are successfully stopped from entering the US, he occasionally praises the governments of the region, but when people begin moving north again, he complains endlessly about why they are not being stopped from leaving their countries.

It is, of course, impossible for a government to physically prevent all emigration — especially a government that can’t always guarantee basic security of its people to begin with. The Trump administration hasn’t identified a particular thing it wants Northern Triangle countries to do or stop doing. And in fact, in the short term, DHS officials appear stuck between mimicking Trump’s harsh line toward Central America and Mexico and needing their cooperation to crack down on migration.

Trump is risking the anger of not only Central America but Mexico — the exact governments he needs to stop people from entering the US

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. She started her remarks by telling her counterparts, “We share common cause with you.”

A few days later, in a piece on Fox News’s website, she was spinning the meeting differently: “I recently traveled to Central America to deliver a clear message to the governments of the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras: time is up, and we need bold action to stem the flood of migrants toward our borders.”

The reality is that diplomacy requires more than just bullying, or insisting that the US get everything it wants immediately. In the short term, if the US is going to crack down on smuggling routes, it needs the kind of cooperation with Central American governments that joint policing agreements can provide. It’s not clear how the aid cutoff is going to affect these efforts.

And then there’s the question of Mexico.

The aid cutoff doesn’t directly affect Mexico. But it’s the country whose cooperation the Trump administration most needs in order to stop people from setting foot in the United States — and being able to claim asylum.

Under the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico has trumpeted a revolutionary, humanitarian approach to regional migration — with López Obrador calling for a “new Marshall Plan” of Northern Triangle investment.

Ostensibly, before last week, the US claimed to agree with that approach: In a joint US-Mexico announcement in December, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to the money America had already directed toward the Northern Triangle as evidence of an investment of billions of dollars.

On the ground, Mexico’s stance has looked very different: It’s cooperated extensively with the US in cracking down on northward migration. Mexican officials 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 — and the US is now insisting that they accept many more.

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 farther from the border.

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

It’s hard enough for Mexico to square this with its humanitarian rhetoric. But the idea that it and the US were equally committed to addressing the “root causes” of migration, and developing the region so that Northern Triangle residents no longer felt the need to leave, was an important fig leaf.

Now the US is simultaneously demonstrating that it doesn’t at all agree with Mexico’s broader approach to the region and insisting that Mexico act immediately, on both its southern and northern borders, to stretch its migration system to align with the US’s goals.

It’s risky business, without any incentive to comply — or, apparently, any interest in giving Mexico or Central American countries to interdict migrants (as the US did under President Obama in 2014 and 2015).

Trump says 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.

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