President Donald Trump ordered the State Department to cut funding for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador this weekend in retaliation for the recent influx of migrants from these nations, reversing a longstanding policy that says aid helps abate immigration.
“We’re giving them $500 million,” Trump told reporters on Friday, claiming without evidence that the governments of these nations “set up” immigrant caravans destined for the U.S.-Mexico border with their “worst people.”
“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 continued.
The State Department said a day later that it would be ending foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Hondura and El Salvador) for fiscal years 2017 and 2018 at the president’s direction. A congressional aide told Reuters this could be about $700 million.
“We will be engaging Congress as part of this process,” said a State Department spokesperson.
According to Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition—a nonprofit coalition of businesses and NGOs dedicated to American development and diplomacy—pulling back aid “exasperates the exact root causes that are creating the migration numbers’ increase.”
“We’ve seen statistics that for every 10 additional murders, six additional children seek safety at our border,” said Schrayer. Foreign aid targets these uninhabitable conditions by supporting security and programs of economic development, she said. One such U.S.-funded program in El Salvador gives children job training, and according to Schrayer, homicides rates have come down 78% in these areas.
“That means kids are staying in these communities,” she said. “They’re not coming to our borders.”
Trump argues the governments in the Northern Triangle aren’t doing enough to stop migration to the U.S. Schrayer said she agrees with the president in that “yes, those country’s leadership need to be accountable to their citizens, and should do more.”
But, she added, the situation should also be answered with the “active diplomacy” and “effective development” funded by foreign assistance programs.
Speaking at the Northern Triangle conference in June 2017, Vice President Mike Pence promoted this policy, saying that “to further stem the flow of illegal immigration and illegal drugs into the United States, President Trump knows, as do all of you, that we must confront these problems at their source.”
Trump’s decision to cut aid is a full reversal of this policy, and Congressional Democrats were swift to condemn the decision. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the end of these aid programs 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,” Menendez said in a statement. “From combating drug trafficking and transnational criminal groups to helping establish safe communities with economic opportunities, U.S. foreign assistance addresses the factors driving migration from Central America.”
A Congressional delegation to El Salvador investigating the increase in family and child migrations to the U.S. called the president’s decision “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 five Democratic lawmakers in a statement. “We will work with our colleagues in Congress to do everything in our power to push back on the President’s misguided approach to Central America.”
Trump has long threatened to cut off aid to the Northern Triangle in retaliation for these countries not stopping the caravans passing through their borders. Families and children continue to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, however, and Trump says the detention centers are full.
“We’ve run out of space,” said Trump on Friday. “We can’t hold people anymore.”
Trump has threatened to entirely shutdown the southern border as the result of these record-breaking numbers. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, February of this year saw 78,000 apprehensions at the southern border—more than any other month in the past five years.