Addressing Northern Triangle Migration Through U.S. Foreign Aid

by Parnian Abunasr-Shiraz, MPP ’22

An unprecedented number of migrants arriving in caravans from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—referred to as the “Northern Triangle”—led the Trump Administration to act on its policy pledge to reduce illegal immigration by cutting foreign aid to the three countries in 2019. But cutting foreign aid to these Northern Triangle countries, which are grappling with economic instability, hunger, crime, and corrupt political systems, exacerbates desperate conditions, driving more migrants toward the U.S. The Trump Administration should continue foreign aid to the Northern Triangle, as it is in the U.S.’s national interest to respond to violence in the region and to ensure USAID and grassroots organizations can continue their work in alleviating factors pushing individuals to migrate towards the U.S. The Administration must consider the pros and cons of cutting foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries and multiple policy alternatives to freezing aid in order to mitigate the factors pushing individuals towards the U.S.-Mexico border.

As a result of historic levels of migration, there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Poverty, corruption, and violence are pushing thousands of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador toward the U.S. in search of safety and a better life. As a surge of migrants arrived in caravans in 2018, President Trump threatened on two occasions to cut foreign aid to the Northern Triangle. In June 2019, President Trump’s administration announced that it was cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador after the President’s disapproval of the countries’ immigration  policies. Funds would not be allocated until the administration approved the countries’ efforts in reducing the flow of migrants reaching the U.S. border.

Aid has been given to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador by former administrations with the aim of improving the economy and increasing job opportunities, reducing drug trade and organized crime, and bringing political stability to the region. Even as the Trump administration sees a surge of migrants at the U.S. border, the Center for American Progress reported that “there were between 500,000 and 550,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the Western Hemisphere from 2008 to 2013,” settling across Latin American countries. Beginning in 2014, that number began to rise, “reaching approximately 870,000 in 2017 and exceeding 1 million by mid-2018.” Critics of Trump’s cut in foreign aid, political scientist Eliza Willis and economist Janet Siez, argue that “the same factors that lead to outmigration—crushing poverty, widespread crime and violence, and weak government institutions—also limit these  governments’ ability to entice residents to stay.” Accordingly, these countries are in need of aid for sustainable development in order to reduce the number of migrants fleeing the region, being taken in by neighboring countries, and heading to the U.S. border. But despite criticism from Republicans and Democrats, the Trump administration withheld foreign aid from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador until recently when the administration approved the countries for reducing migration to the U.S.

A collection of dominant factors is pushing individuals from these countries towards the U.S. Although each country’s situation is unique, to some extent these challenges can be grouped into the following three categories: crime and violence, poverty and economic collapse, and government corruption. As a response to the migrant caravans in 2018 and 2019 at the U.S. border—which overwhelmed U.S. Customs & Border Patrol—Trump told reporters in Florida, “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore because they haven’t done a thing for us.” This referred to his decision to cut $500 million in aid from the three countries for their failure in preventing their citizens from coming to the U.S. Those on the left and right who supported cutting aid raised the question, “Why would we waste U.S. taxpayer money to support corrupt regimes that commit human rights violations and do not respect basic human liberties?” But Trump’s decision also raises the opportunity to ask questions about U.S. foreign aid in general: Can U.S. assistance be successful if foreign aid is given to Central American organizations and private U.S. companies in the region that are overseen by the state government? More specifically, can it be successful when issues of corruption and elitism have thoroughly penetrated the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador? Policy Fellow Eric L. Olson of the Wilson Center, in support for Trump’s cut in aid, raised the example of prior attempts at “state-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan having mostly failed by asking, “Why would we expect different results in Central America?” Similar to the U.S.’s position in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not clear whether the U.S. has reliable partners in the governments of the three countries. Without reliable partners, the potential of U.S. aid to increase corruption due to a lack of oversight and disbursement becomes more of a reality. Therefore, as Trump holds the purse strings to foreign aid, it can be argued that his decision to withhold aid from the corrupt governments of the Northern Triangle is just

On the contrary, lawmakers and analysts find Trump’s slash in aid to be counterproductive. While the State  Department sent the aid for the three countries elsewhere, nonprofits that primarily received funding through USAID have had to stop, scale back, or postpone humanitarian and development projects. Cuts to nonprofit projects will likely exacerbate the flow of migrants to the U.S. as there will be less money to undertake issues that are pushing citizens to migrate. Mary McInerney, Save the Children’s Country Director for Guatemala, reported that an emergency food program funded by USAID that provided cash to 6,000 families, including 22,000 children, had to close down. Subsequently, desperate adults were forced to relocate their families either within or outside Guatemala to put food on the table. As cited by USAID, foreign aid to the Northern Triangle has shown success. Between 2015 and 2017, El Salvador saw homicides decline 61% in municipalities where USAID operates; Guatemalan court houses, using new USAID investigation models, boosted the number of convictions in extortion cases from 26 in 2015 to 180 as of October 2017; and USAID investments in agriculture lifted 17,937 families—over 89,000 people—in Honduras out of extreme poverty since 2011. These programs are vital and are widely run without direct governmental intervention, making them free of corrupt regimes. Cutting aid will ultimately make factors driving migrants to the U.S. worse due to an absence in projects and initiatives that would alleviate the problems.

An alternative policy to freezing or continuing Northern Triangle aid is standing up for democracy, human  rights, and the rule of law. The U.S. could continue its long-standing policies of strengthening the police, supporting lawful reforms in prosecution services and the judiciary, such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and assisting investigative efforts into money laundering, extortion, and murder in the region. Supporting these efforts advances U.S. national interests and responds to the violence, crime, and corruption driving citizen migration.

However, standing up for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law proves difficult. For example, Guatemala’s Attorney General has worked closely with the CICIG to bring charges against current and former politicians, showing promise of reform, only to be met with those cases being stalled and the CICIG banned from Guatemala. But despite failure to demonstrate progress on human rights and democratic governance, in 2020 the State Department certified U.S. aid to the three Northern Triangle countries after they cooperated with Trump’s immigration policies. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), a former member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says this is an example of not only failing to meet the basic values of U.S. law and democracy but making a mockery of them and undermining them.

In an effort to slow the flow of migration to the U.S., the Trump Administration should address the underlying factors that cause migration from the Northern Triangle: crime and violence, poverty and economic collapse, and government corruption. Investments need to be focused on development projects on a grassroots level overseen by USAID and other entities. Some examples could include education for out-of-school youth in high-crime areas, better business environments, job creation, projects protecting children, strengthening the justice sector, instituting government integrity and accountability through the justice system, and crime and violence prevention efforts. Colombia, a country that has produced the largest share of migrants in the Americas, saw a decline in the number of migrants between 2012 and mid-2018 as a result of the negotiations from a national peace agreement and a trend toward political stability in the country. Thus, the Administration should also further study Colombia’s efforts toward success in stabilizing the country and declining emigration. It is evident that cutting foreign aid to the Northern Triangle will exacerbate the underlying factors causing migration and increasing the flow to the U.S. border, and that laser-focused investments in each country is the way to make a real, long-lasting difference.

Featured image: Photo by Caleb Wright on Unsplash

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