The United States and Mexico are teaming up in a new effort to stem the flow of immigrants from Central America, even as President Trump carries out policy changes that critics argue could spur insecurity in the region and drive more people north.
In recent years, more people entering the U.S. illegally have come from Central American countries than from Mexico, with more than 200,000 Central Americans detained at the border in 2016.
The new initiative aims to discourage people from leaving Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala by funding projects over the next six months to improve the economies and security situation in those countries while reducing corruption.
“We’re taking on what we both recognize as the drivers of mass migration," said Mark Green, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, who announced the collaboration Thursday after meeting with his counterparts in Mexico City.
Migrants don’t want to leave their homes and family behind, Green said: “If we can take on those drivers at home, then kids get a normal life.”
While Trump asked for a reduction in funding for Central America in his proposed budget to Congress earlier this year — part of a suggested 30% cutback across the State Department — the initiative is a continuation of a strategy forged by his predecessor.
President Obama persuaded Congress to approve more than $750 million in development aid for Central America after more than 68,000 children traveling without an adult were apprehended at the border in 2014. Most of them came from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
In June, Vice President Mike Pence seemed committed to that approach when he met with leaders from Mexico and the Northern Triangle to discuss ways to prevent citizens from migrating to the United States.
Still, experts said those efforts could be undercut by Trump’s other actions in the region.
In August, Trump ended an Obama-era program that granted temporary legal residence in the U.S. to Central American children who could prove they were under threat of violence. The program was designed as a safe and legal alternative for children who might have otherwise sought to migrate alone. Without it, migrant advocates fear more minors will head north with smugglers.
Advocates also warn that other migration-related policies the administration has enacted or is weighing could destabilize the region by leading to much higher levels of deportations of Central Americans from the U.S.
In September, Trump announced that he would be ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that shields from deportation 800,000 migrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Trump is also considering whether to renew protections for immigrants living in the country with Temporary Protected Status, which was granted to tens of thousands of migrants in the wake of natural disasters in Honduras, El Salvador and several other countries.
The president has repeatedly called for deporting members of MS-13, a gang active in both the U.S. and El Salvador. In a speech this summer, Trump called the gang members “animals" and promised “they'll be out of here quickly.”
Mass deportations could be seriously disruptive in the small, poor countries of Central America, said Eric Olson, an expert on the region at the nonpartisan Wilson Center think tank in Washington. It was the large-scale deportation of MS-13 gang members to El Salvador beginning in the 1990s, he said, that helped turn the country into one of the most violent in the world.
“The Trump administration runs the risk of undermining its own policy goals,” Olson said. “If at the same time they’re sending back tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who can’t really integrate well, you may create more instability, and eventually more migration.”
The new collaboration between the U.S. and Mexico is a bright spot in what has been a contentious year for the longtime allies. Trump has publicly sparred with Mexican leaders over his threats to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement and his insistence that he will force Mexico to pay for construction of a border wall.
On those issues, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has used Mexico’s cooperation with the U.S. on immigration and security as a bargaining chip, saying his country could stop helping the U.S. at any time. Of course, Mexico also has a vested interest in reducing the number of migrants seeking to cross its territory to get to the U.S. border. Mexico is also grappling with a sharp increase in asylum requests from Central Americans, which tripled between 2012 and 2015.
Green said his conversations with Mexican leaders this week have been optimistic and not focused on Trump. “Every single one of them has been forward-looking and aspirational about all the things we’ll do together,” he said.
The collaborations will begin immediately, he said.
In El Salvador, the two nations will work with the local government to improve trade practices, including standardizing documentation requirements and streamlining border procedures. In Honduras, Mexican doctors and experts in forensic medicine will work with the U.S. to train local law enforcement officials in more effective and transparent techniques.
In Guatemala, the U.S. and Mexico will help young people who are likely to migrate in search of jobs, officials said. They will also help Guatemala to improve its tax collection to minimize opportunities for corruption.
Whether or not such programs actually cut down on migration is difficult to determine, according to experts.
U.S. officials say ongoing efforts to reduce violence have paid off in El Salvador, where homicide rates have fallen in many of the 33 towns where the United States is helping to fight crime. In Honduras, U.S. support has led to an increase in anti-corruption cases, according to senior USAID officials in the region.
The number of children showing up at the U.S. border without adults has fallen since peak levels several years ago, and overall border apprehensions dipped dramatically after Trump’s election last year. But in recent months, border apprehensions have begun to creep back up.