Trump’s Cuts to Central America Aid Will Lead to More Caravans

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As several thousand Central American migrants moved through Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico on their way toward the United States, President Trump tweeted that he would begin cutting off foreign aid to these countries.

Given Congress’s power of the purse, acting on these threats is likely illegal. More importantly, however, it would be counterproductive. Not only would such a pullback swell this human tide, it would squander the hard-earned gains and lessons of a decade-long effort to make Central American nations better places to live than to leave.

Sadly, a combination of events and continuing difficult circumstances has already had a profound negative impact, pushing people to pull up stakes. Since April, an average of nearly 14,000 Central Americans have made it to the U.S. southern border every month. And this isn’t the first time migrants have banded together in their trek, though few groups have reached this size or garnered such media attention.

This exodus of groups is likely less a convoluted plot by nefarious political forces than the conclusion by millions of citizens that matters in their countries have reached a tipping point. Afflicted by crime, violence, drought and poverty, inspired by the examples of others bold enough to leave home, and swayed by misinformation peddled by human smugglers eager to make a buck, they have convoyed together for safety and headed north.

Central America’s long-standing challenges have been the focus of much U.S. foreign assistance. A decade ago, U.S. support for Central America’s woes grew as part of the Merida Initiative, a counterdrug and security assistance program the George W. Bush administration developed with Mexico. In 2010 President Obama spun out the Central America portion into the separate Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. These programs provided on average just shy of $200 million a year for helicopters, intelligence-gathering equipment, police training, healthcare, youth programs, job training, small business support, and a host of other programs to strengthen security, rule of law, and economic growth.

In 2014 when nearly 300,000 Central Americans flooded the southern U.S. border, many of them children and women, the powerful images dominating the news led Congress to step in with the bipartisan Alliance for Prosperity, more than tripling earlier outlays.

As the number of dollars rose the focus of aid also shifted — away from military hardware and toward governance and economic development. USAID and other agencies launched dozens and dozens of smaller initiatives to attack the complicated root causes that pushed so many to leave. As Celina de Sola, one of the founders of USAID partner Glasswing International, told me, “We have seen significant shifts in the funding strategy, toward more evidence-based and targeted interventions aimed at not only preventing crime and violence, but also improving access to education, job readiness, and vocational training for those most at risk in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.” Her organization has worked with tens of thousands of kids in and out of schools to give them professional skills and basic coping tools for life.

This decade-plus of support hasn’t transformed Central America. Drugs continue to traverse these nations and violence plagues daily life. Governance remains weak, as does the professionalization of police forces. Homicides have declined, though it is hard to know if this shift is more permanent than temporary. Corruption scandals and accusations of other bad behavior continue to dog Central America’s governments.

Yet at the local and family level, U.S.-funded programs have made a difference. There are hundreds of stories of kids who stayed in school, businesses begun, criminal cases investigated, domestic violence cases adjudicated, and lives that became better, leading more people to stay than would otherwise have done so.

And dollar for dollar, individual by individual, programs designed to give Central Americans a better future at home are arguably much more cost-effective than the thousands of dollars it can cost per capita to detain, prosecute and then deport them.

For an administration that wants to stop immigration, cutting aid to improve, however modestly, day-to-day conditions in Central America is nonsensical. By undermining hard-fought and fragile pockets of stability in Central America’s northern triangle nations, reducing present or future aid will just send more Central Americans north. This is not policy, but politics aimed at riling up the 25 percent of Republicans who identify immigration as their No. 1 voting issue.

Even more cynically, Trump’s tweets are largely empty threats. Congress has already funded these plans, so the administration needs to spend the money. Following through on his tweet to end foreign assistance is illegal under the Impoundment Act of 1974, though Trump can redirect parts of the already appropriated budget.

Whether this caravan’s members make it to the U.S. southern border or not, others already have, and more will follow. That’s why U.S. aid to these nations must continue. And why the U.S. needs to fix its immigration system, so that would be migrants don’t have to caravan to find a path to safety and opportunity. Bluster as he may, Trump’s threats to take his aid and go home just aren’t an option.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shannon O'Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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