President Trump plans to slash hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to three Central American countries in retaliation for what he called their lack of help in reducing the flow of migrants to the U.S. border.
The move confirmed Saturday against El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras deepens the White House confrontations with Latin America over a surge in irregular migrations, including asylum seekers and others.
Trump has already warned that he could close the southern border — or at least large stretches of it — unless Mexico takes steps to halt migrants heading north.
The State Department said Saturday that it would be “ending ... foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle,” a region representing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The aid affects nearly $500 million in 2018 funds and millions more left over from the prior fiscal year.
Trump has threatened for months to cut assistance to the three nations, igniting a fight inside the U.S. government with officials who say the funds actually help slow migration. The money goes to programs to address what authorities call the “root causes” of migration — issues such as poverty, a lack of jobs and violence.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, faced court challenges over its effort to divert funds for more border wall construction under a national emergency declaration.
On Friday night, during a trip to Florida, Trump said governments in Central America weren’t doing enough to slow migration. The number of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border has been soaring, with more than 76,000 migrants taken into custody in February. Many are Central Americans seeking asylum.
“I’ve ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and El Salvador. No more money is going there anymore,” Trump told reporters on Friday. “We were giving them $500 million. We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore because they haven’t done a thing for us.”
Trump’s comments came just a day after Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, signed what the department called a “historic” memorandum of cooperation on border security in Central America.
Over the last year, Trump has seized on the formation of giant caravans of U.S.-bound migrants as evidence that Mexico and Central America are doing little to discourage migration.
Authorities in the region have said they are taking what measures they can under their laws. Mexico, for example, has offered thousands of temporary humanitarian visas to migrants permitting them to stay and work in the country.
Raul Lopez, vice minister of justice in El Salvador, said in an interview last week that the flow of migrants from his country was actually slowing.
“We see that as proof that our investment — and the investment of the international community — in social issues is working,” he said. “U.S. assistance has had a positive impact in reducing migration from El Salvador, but we need more help to continue this fight.”
Border Patrol apprehensions are far less than their peak of 1.6 million in 2000, but the Trump administration says the flows have changed in character. While most migrants used to be Mexican men who could be easily deported, now they are often asylum-seeking families who are entitled to protections under federal law.
Border Patrol agents have been overwhelmed in recent weeks by the arrival of large numbers of Central American families and children, many of whom are being quickly released into local communities because of a lack of detention space.
Congressional Democrats visiting El Salvador on Saturday said they were “extremely disappointed” about the aid cutoff.
“The president’s approach is entirely counterproductive. It will only result in more children and families being forced to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border,” said the statement from the delegation, which included Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The announcement of the aid cutoff comes as a new caravan of about 2,000 Central Americans and Cubans is crossing Mexico. Trump has threatened to close the border next week because of the rising flows of migrants.