The Underlying Flaw in the Trump Administration’s Approach to Central American Aid

By Jacob Hofstetter
Monday, July 9, 2018, 1:34 PM

Approximately 100 asylum seekers arrived at the U.S. border between San Diego and Tijuana in April after traveling together as part of a migrant caravan through Mexico. Mostly families seeking safety in the United States, the group nonetheless elicited a sharp response from the Trump administration. In his outrage over the caravan, President Trump tweeted a warning that foreign aid to Honduras was “in play” if irregular migration to the U.S.-Mexico border did not diminish or stop.

The president’s tweets were not an isolated outburst. The Trump administration has increasingly used rhetoric that pairs the number of migrants arriving at the border with the dollar totals the United States sends south to Central American countries. Yet this approach of trading money for fewer migrants may actually undermine the Trump administration’s goal of fewer Central American migrants arriving at the border—and, over the long term, it could endanger the entire U.S. strategy for reducing the drivers of irregular migration from Central America.

U.S. assistance to the “Northern Triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) has been linked with migration since before the Trump presidency. For the past decade, the United States has provided aid to the region with the explicit goals to improve governance, citizen security and economic prosperity. Since 2014, however, economic underdevelopment, family reunification, gang violence and other factors have sparked a surge in the number of people leaving the region. Recognizing the increasing numbers of migrants, the Obama administration boosted aid to the Northern Triangle from $305 million in fiscal 2014 to $750 million in fiscal 2016 to combat the insecurity driving asylum seekers as well as the lack of economic opportunity pushing some migrants north.

The Obama administration framed this engagement in constructive terms. State Department and White House statements focused on addressing the “underlying” causes or “roots” of migration through assistance programs. The strategy also advocated for an “economically integrated” and “fully democratic” Central America that could provide a “safe environment” for its citizens. Vice President Joe Biden went even further, saying in March 2015 that Central America had the potential “to become the next great success story in the Western Hemisphere.”

Under the Trump administration, however, the justification for these aid programs has shifted from the rhetoric of nation building to that of strict migration enforcement. Since President Trump’s inauguration, eight of 19, or nearly half, of the State Department and White House press releases on U.S. assistance to Central America have included language defining regional assistance as efforts to “stem,” “curtail” or “deter illegal migration.” If the count includes references to “illegal immigration,” 13 of 19 documents, or two out of every three, on security assistance to Central America reflect this shift in rhetoric. By comparison, only two documents from the Obama administration used this language, and they were from the Department of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of overseeing immigration and border control.

Under the Obama administration, the aid programs were described as “A Plan for Central America” that recognized that the “security and prosperity of Central America” were “inextricably linked” to that of the United States. The Trump administration, by contrast, frames them as “America First” efforts to “secure U.S. borders” and “protect U.S. citizens” and ameliorate conditions that “adversely impact the United States.” Beyond these speeches and press releases, the documents outlining the overall U.S. strategy on Central America have shifted from the optimism of the Obama administration to an approach that seeks to “protect American citizens” and to advance U.S. economic interests in the region.

In practical terms, little has changed so far in how the United States provides assistance to the Northern Triangle. Both administrations have sought to improve security and economic conditions through aid programs so migrants would not feel compelled to come to the United States. And despite its rhetoric, the Trump administration did not propose massive overhauls to any Central American assistance programs—such as the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI)—beyond suggesting a significant cut in the programs’ overall budget from $700 million to $460 million (though Congress has funded the program at $615 million for fiscal 2018).

Although these programs have remained more or less the same in practice, rhetorically tying security and economic assistance to migration could produce unexpected changes. If the priority is on stopping migrants in the short term, U.S. agencies may begin to shift assistance away from programs improving security and economic conditions to those that have an immediate impact on migration. Similarly, Central American governments may prioritize migration-related targets, such as dismantling human smuggling businesses, rather than supporting programs that improve the long-term effectiveness of police forces in preventing gang violence.

At some point, the Trump administration could decide to abandon assistance programs if it concludes that the money sent to the Northern Triangle is not resulting in fewer migrants. The president stated in May that the United States could potentially “work out something where every time someone comes from a certain country, we're going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid.” In the midst of the family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border last month, Vice President Mike Pence said that the Northern Triangle countries needed to “do more” to stop migrants from coming to the United States. If the number of people attempting to seek asylum or otherwise cross into the United States remains too high for the Trump administration—a number that may well be zero—the administration may decide to end these assistance programs.

Such an approach would miss the larger point of U.S. assistance to the Central American countries migrants are seeking to leave. The expectation was never to trade assistance for foreign governments’ help in stopping migrants from coming to the United States. Instead, policymakers in the Obama White House and Congress envisioned U.S. assistance would address the insecurity and underdevelopment that were causing so many Central Americans to irregularly seek to relocate to the United States. These types of social and economic transformations require long-term investment and broad engagement from the entire region, not a narrow U.S. focus on irregular migration.

The Trump administration, however, has seemed inclined to make U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle contingent on the number of migrants irregularly arriving at the southern border. If this focus leads to more concrete policy changes or reduced assistance, the Trump administration may wind up with a strategy that delays or impedes some migrants without addressing the conditions driving those people to leave the Northern Triangle. In this scenario, the United States would face long-term irregular migration from the Northern Triangle, no matter how many “zero tolerance” tactics the Trump administration deploys.