Cutting off U.S. assistance to Central America’s Northern Triangle countries to stem migration is an example of wrong-headed ideology driving policy off a cliff, with ruinous results for those countries and ours.
President Trump decided, clearly without inter-agency consultation, coming just a day after his Secretary of Homeland Security had boasted of an “historic” agreement with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to control migration, to halt current FY17 and FY18 spending in those countries and bar any new programs. Diplomats, scholars and longtime observers of the post-conflict history of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, even Vice President Pence — agree that reducing violence, creating economic opportunity, building less corrupt and more effective governance is the only way to limit the push factors driving migration.
One recent study found:
• In El Salvador, homicides boost migration by 188 percent and economic informality by 27 percent.
A similar pattern was found between violence and the migration of minors in all three countries.
• In Guatemala, a 1percent increase in homicides drives migration by 100 percent; increases in economic informality raise migration by 4 percent and a decline in human development index increases migration by 5 percent.
• In Honduras, a 1 percent increase in homicides increases migration by 120 percent; rises in the amount of economic informality drive migration by 12 percent.
Equally important, the need to target push factors is endorsed by most civil society, business and government leaders in those countries. Even the elites, many of whom have opposed tax, transparency and justice reforms, acknowledge that reality.
Until recent rhetoric about sealing the border in the near future gave coyotes a new selling pitch, the numbers of Northern Triangle migrants flowing north to the southwest was at a 45-year low in FY17. Last year, there was a tick upwards but still lower than FY14. When you look at the numbers closely you also see a vast difference among the three countries. In part those declines are linked to US foreign aid programs that work.
In El Salvador, there were half as many family unit apprehensions between FY16 and FY 18 on the southwest border. The numbers dropped from 27,114 to 13,669 according to the US Border Patrol. The drop in unaccompanied minors from El Salvador was even more dramatic, declining by three-quarters last year from 2014.
How did U.S. foreign assistance contribute to those positive trends? And why didn’t President Trump recognize the success, take credit for it and urge the other two countries to do more of the same? Those are questions that need to be asked.
Just after outsider Nayib Bukele was elected president this year in a historic first round win, I traveled to El Salvador. I also was in the country three times last year, and dozens of times since I served there as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s. Here is what I found.
USAID, State and Justice foreign assistance programs played a key role in reducing the migratory push factor of violence, working with the Salvador government, civil society and private sector to target the 50 highest violence municipalities. Then they used other lessons learned in Colombia and elsewhere to partner with Salvador counterparts in a violence prevention program in those communities aimed at youth most vulnerable to gang recruitment and intimidation, knitting in- and out of school job training, recreation, law enforcement with community policing, local government transparency and investment in and youth involvement in community services.
In those 50 high crime counties, homicides since 2015 dropped by 61 percent, about 50 percent more than the national homicide reduction. Initial evaluation also shows drops in extortion. Nationally it was Plan El Salvador Seguro with Salvadoran funding alongside U.S. and U.N. monies. The national results saw the homicide rate cut by 42 percent between 2015-2018.
Salvadoran and U.S. officials and NGOs believe that those violence reduction results, with the jury still out pending ongoing evaluations, link directly to the sharp reduction we have seen in Salvadoran family and unaccompanied minors showing up on the U.S. southwest border.
El Salvador’s new president takes office on June 1. U.S. officials already welcome president-elect Bukele’s voiced determination to do more on anti corruption with a CICIG-like entity for El Salvador and frankly are even more enthusiastic about his foreign policy statements critical of China, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Having the U.S. essentially turn its back on the incoming administration by cutting aid clearly would be a mistake.
So isn’t this a good time for the next tweet from the White House to say —“I took a second look and decided that we should not cut US foreign aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.”
And if that tweet doesn’t appear, the U.S. Congress should press the 1974 Budget and Impoundment Control law, and reject reprogramming that takes monies away from the Northern Triangle. They should add funding to replicate and expand programs that are combatting the underlying causes of migration — corruption, crime, and an absence of hope in communities suffering both violence and economic stagnation.
• Mark Schneider is senior adviser in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
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