Upset over the mounting flow of migrants at the U.S. southern border, President Donald Trump stated Friday that he has cut off $500 million in foreign aid approved by Congress for three Central American countries.
Trump blamed the governments of the region for not doing enough to prevent the migrant exodus which U.S. officials say is overwhelming immigration controls at the southern border with Mexico.
“I'm not playing games," Trump told reporters during a trip to Florida. "I've ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and El Salvador. No money goes there anymore," he said, standing next to Florida's two U.S. Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as the state's Governor Ron DeSantis.
"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," he added. "They set up these caravans in many cases, they put their worst people in the caravan. They're not going to put their best in. They get rid of their problems and they march up here."
The State Department on Friday began the process of informing Congress that it intended to halt the foreign aid, according to internal press guidance obtained by Univision. Trump appeared to have jumped the gun on Friday, as rules require a seven day notification period before officials make any announcement to the public, or the affected governments. According to the State Department guidance that process was not due to begin officially until Monday, April 1.
The White House and State Department did not respond to repeated requests from Univision for comment. There was no immediate response from the governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who diplomats said were blindsided by the decision.
"Not effective partners"
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave instructions "to redirect approximately $450 million in 2018 foreign assistance funds planned for the Northern Triangle to other foreign policy priorities," according to the internal guidance. Remaining 2017 foreign assistance funds were also to be redirected.
"These funds will be redirected to support foreign assistance programs that are truly effective and work to advance our foreign policy goals. At this time, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvadaor are not effective partners in our effort to curb migration to our southern border," it added.
Critics say halting the aid could jeopardize efforts to build greater cooperation with the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants.
"Aid programs give hope"
"This hits the U.S. organizations, churches and dedicated professionals who are trying to make this happen, and develop these countries while they lower migration," said one U.S. diplomat in the region who asked not to be named. "Then there are all the hundreds of thousands of people who these aid programs give hope to and keep on their land. Who knows how many more people are going to migrate without that hope."
The lack of funding is already having an impact as budget managers try to rearrange what little money is left in the pipeline, according to sources who spoke to Univision.
“It’s gotten to a critical point. We are a week or two from having to close programs and start firing people,” said the diplomat. “All programs are being brought down to a minimum level so they are not destroyed,” the diplomat added.
Funding delays over foreign aid are common due to bureaucratic issues, but there are legal restraints on how much the White House can interfere with the budget set by Congress. “In the case of Central America aid, it would be illegal not to spend it as specified,” said Adam Isacson, a regional expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S.-based human rights group.
The White House has until September 30 to assign the funds, he added.
The withholding of aid comes after repeated threats by Trump to cut funding for Central America due to his frustration over the mounting number of migrants arriving at the southern U.S. border with Mexico to seek asylum.
Trump also threatend on Friday to close the border with Mexico if the situation does not improve.
“This is classic Trump. The same thing happened with the wall. Once Congress appropriates money and it becomes law, the President doesn’t get to just do whatever he wants with it,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, an influential Washington DC group that seeks to shape regional policy.
Funds designed to stop migrants
The aid is part of a bipartisan program designed by the Obama Administration to reduce illegal immigration by increasing security, improving democratic governance and creating jobs in the three so-called Northern Triangle countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where most of the migrants come from. The funds pay for training of the judiciary, rural development programs to help farmers and reduce poverty, as well as programs to deter migrants from making the dangerous journey north and helping resettle those who are deported.
Some observers noted the irony of money being withheld from programs designed to reduce immigration at a time that the Trump administration is complaining about a national emergency at the border due to the large number of migrants.
One affected program manager who runs a $65 million job training program in Guatemala, told Univision, "cutting funding will actually increase migration, crime, gangs, corruption. Don't expect less caravans. And certainly don't expect less cocaine on U.S. soil as result of this policy."
President "countermands" senior advisers
"The president’s recent statement on zeroing out assistance for the Northern Triangle reveals once again that his foreign policy is based on highly personalistic misinterpretations of what is actually going on around the world," said former US ambassador and Univision foreign policy analyst John Feeley, who previously served as the deputy head for Latin America at the State Department.
"His own senior advisers tell him that a small amount of foreign assistance will help achieve the goal of slowing the migrant flows, and in a fit of hubristic anger, he countermands them. This is not how a serious American administration conducts foreign policy. It’s how second-tier dictatorships operate.”
James Nealon, who was U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2014-2017, said "cutting off assistance to cooperative countries will exacerbate the poor governance and instability that feed migration." He added: " If the President hates irregular migration now, just wait until he cuts off the very assistance designed to mitigate it."
Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Trump's decison as "reckless" and if carried out "would undermine American interests and put our national security at risk." U.S. foreign assistance is not charity; it advances our strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens.
In October, Trump tweeted the US would "begin cutting off" foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador after he accused them of not being able “to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the US.”
In a March speech to conservatives, Trump accused Central America of sending “some very bad people … with tremendous violence in their past: murderers, killers, drug dealers, human traffickers.”
At the same time as Trump lashes out at the region, administration officials are seeking the cooperation of Central American governments. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with officials from the three countries in Honduras on Wednesday to sign what she called was a "historic" regional migration pact to increase cooperation on security issues and prevent the migrant ‘caravans’ that have so angered Trump.
“America shares common cause with the countries of Central America in confronting these challenges,” Nielsen said in a press statement on Thursday, hailing the pact. "Together we will prevail," she added.
Trump has already tried to slash the budget for Central America, though he has met strong resistance in Congress which sees value in support for programs on the ground to deal with what many see as the push factors that cause migrants to leave: poverty, insecurity and government corruption.
Funding to the Northern Triangle countries has fallen steadily in recent years dropping to around $500 million last year, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S.-based human rights group.
While government corruption is a major concern in the region, aid experts point out that 90 percent of the funding goes to private contracts with international aid agencies, U.S. consulting companies and local non-profit groups who carry out the programs. The Trump administration appear more interested in spending money on securing the border than tackling issues of third world poverty afflicting the region, they add.
Trump declared illegal immigration a national emergency in February as part of a plan to shift $6.7 billion in non-congressionally approved funds to border wall construction.
Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told reporters on Wednesday that he had urged Congress to allocate more resources for the border, warning of an unprecedented migration surge that has pushed his agency to “the breaking point.”
The agency detained more than 3,700 migrants on Monday, the highest one-day total at the border in a decade. U.S. authorities detained more than 76,000 in February, and this month, they are on pace to exceed 95,000, according to the CBP projections.