Trump’s Caravan Panic is Self-defeating

Washington Post
October 23, 2018
By Amanda Erickson

Evin Mata, who was deported to Honduras from Florida three months ago, is walking because he needs a job. “We are workers,” he told my colleague Kevin Sieff on Sunday. “What are we supposed to do in Honduras if there’s no work?”

Ingrid Andino joined because she feared for the life of her 16-year-old son, who was being pushed by gangs in Honduras to sell drugs. Leaving was the only way to keep him safe, she said.

Sairy Bueso said she’s doing it for her two children. She wants them to have more opportunities than she has. “There are risks that we must take for the good of our children,” she told the Guardian this weekend.

Mata, Andino and Bueso are all part of a group of thousands of refugees and migrants making their way from Central America into Mexico. Leaders of the caravan say they’ll keep going until they reach the United States.

The march has unnerved President Trump, who called the caravan a national emergency. In a series of tweets, he suggested — without evidence — that the group was crammed full of “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.” On Monday, he threatened to reduce or even cut off foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries from which most of the caravan originates.

The stories of Mata, Andino and Bueso illustrate why that would be a mistake. Migrants from Central America are making the journey here largely because they have no other choice. They are coming from countries with limited economic opportunities, endemic violence and rampant drug cartels. As Sieff put it, the members of the caravan “spoke in different accents, fleeing different disasters: joblessness in parts of Honduras, a mounting political crisis in Nicaragua, cities in Guatemala where they were sure their children would languish as they had.” Those are exactly the kinds of problems U.S. foreign aid is intended to help fix — and reducing that aid is unlikely to have the effect Trump wants.

“Cutting funds for programs that are supposed to fight the drug trade … doesn’t actually seem like it would be that productive” in terms of stopping illegal migration, Sarah Blodgett Bermeo, a public-policy professor at Duke, said to Today’s WorldView. “People are going to keep fleeing as long as it’s that bad.”

For decades, the United States has provided millions of dollars in aid each year to the countries of the “Northern Triangle” — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Those contributions grew even bigger in 2014, after the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico to the United States began to spike. The money is used to bolster economies and help improve security.

Economic development funds go to several different kinds of programs, including efforts to help rural economies develop and to improve the ability of local businesses to produce more skilled workers. Security aid, meanwhile, funds programs to fight both the drug trade and violence in general. U.S. contributions to regional efforts help law enforcement and security officers disrupt criminal infrastructure. They also help develop law enforcement capacity in these countries, along with a raft of gang prevention and community policing.

These are the kinds of efforts that could lead to a decline in violence and disorder over time, Bermeo said. That, in turn, would lead to lower levels of migration. “It’s going to take a long time to fix,” she said. “But these programs have the potential to change things in the medium to long term by making things less violent.”

Yet the Trump administration has made sizable cuts to foreign aid in Central America. For the 2019 fiscal year, which started this month, the United States has allocated $180 million in funding for economic development in the Northern Triangle — a drop of almost 40 percent from 2016. The United States contributes another $300 million to regional security measures.

In a 2014 report for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, senior policy analyst Ana Quintana agreed with Bermeo’s assessment of U.S.-backed security programs, noting that they can help create safer streets, disrupt criminal and cartel networks, and strengthen the rule of law in Central America.

“Rather than cutting foreign assistance, the U.S. should be looking for ways to better engage with regional partners in Latin America,” Quintana wrote. “The U.S., Mexico, and countries in Central America all have a shared interest in regional security.”

Cutting funding would also diminish Washington’s ability to maintain its standing in the region. “It’s an important carrot,” Bermeo says. “If we withdraw aid, we’re losing that ability to have an influence” on policies that affect the United States directly, such as the efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs across the border.

Marcela Escobari, an assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean during the Obama administration, put it this way: “We have been in Central America for a long time,” Escobari told Devex, a news website focused on international aid . “It’s not just money that has made us effective in the region — there is a lot of hard-earned experience, trial and error, and institution building that is slowly reaping results. The worst thing that could happen now is to go back to zero.”

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