The Trump administration is holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that Congress approved for Central America, potentially jeopardizing efforts to build greater cooperation with the governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to stem the flow of migrants, according to diplomats and foreign aid experts.
The lack of funds is already causing programs to be cut and people to be laid off in the region, according to the sources. The withholding of funds comes after repeated threats by President Donald 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. It includes funding approved for both 2018 and 2019, totaling almost $500 million, the sources told Univision.
“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.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It’s gotten to a critical point. We are a week or two from having to close programs and start firing people,” said one U.S. diplomat who asked not to be named. “All programs are being brought down to a minimum level so they are not destroyed,” the diplomat added.
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.
Programs designed to deter migrants
Some observers noted the irony of money being withheld from program 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. “By not disbursing appropriated funds for development and rule of law in the Northern Triangle, the Trump Administration undermines its own desired end state,” 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.
“It’s a self-inflected wound based on the President’s personal and incorrect belief that foreign assistance is a giveaway for lazy takers nations,” he added.
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 hurls his insults, 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.
Yet, the the bafflement of many, her diplomatic statement came only hours after Trump had angrily tweeted again that he might close the southern border due to the failure of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to stop the migrant flow. He said they "have taken our money for years, and do Nothing.”
Trump has already tried to slash the budget for Central America, though 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.
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 WOLA.
The White House has until September 30 to assign the funds, he added.
But critics say it could be too late by then to save some programs. “They are foot dragging. It’s almost like they are setting us up for failure so the programs die of atrophy, and then they can blame the lack of effectiveness of the programs. It seems really cynical," said the U.S. diplomat.