Why Central American aid cuts could mean more migration, not less

Why We Wrote This

International aid can seem like a gift, or even a 'reward.' But it's also a key tool for long-term development to benefit the donor country, complicating decisions about when and why to cut assistance.

Isabel Mateos/AP
Central American migrants, part of a caravan hoping to reach the U.S. border, walk down a road in Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, March 28, 2019. A caravan of about 2,500 Central Americans and Cubans is making its way through Chiapas.

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The U.S. immigration system is at a “breaking point,” the head of Customs and Border Protection said last month. But how do you stem the flow of migration from Central America?

Last week, President Donald Trump announced a dramatic new approach: cutting $450 million in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the home countries of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers. The region’s governments should pull their weight in slowing the outflow of citizens, the White House announcement suggests – and if not, why “reward” them with aid? But can international development aid be used as an incentive – or punishment – for governments to comply with donor interests?

To many Latin America observers, the cuts seemed likely to miss the mark. The majority would affect NGOs, charities, and churches addressing the root causes of migration, like economic opportunity and security, not government funding itself. Considering how weak many public institutions in the region are, those kinds of civil society-run programs are all the more important, some point out.

“We can work with governments to change conditions on the ground,” says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “But that requires development aid” – and time.

Can you stop migration by stopping aid?

That’s a central question following President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that he would cut $450 million in aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – the home countries of tens of thousands of migrants and asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. southern border.

It’s a dramatic move meant to hold governments responsible for the growing tally of families, unaccompanied minors, and others leaving the Northern Triangle, as this part of Central America is known. Central American governments should pull their weight in slowing the outflow of citizens, the White House announcement suggests – and if not, why “reward” them with aid? “They haven’t done a thing for us,” Mr. Trump said Friday. 

Development assistance is hardly a perfect system, analysts say. But the cuts are expected to mostly affect nongovernmental organizations, charities, and churches addressing some of the root causes of migration – not the governments themselves. That raises the question of whether reducing assistance successfully can pressure governments to halt migration, or lead to more.

The U.S. system is at a “breaking point,” as migrants and asylum-seekers arrive in large groups at the southern border, the head of Customs and Border Protection said last month. Between October and February, 136,150 people traveling in families were arrested by U.S. border agents. That exceeds the total for the entire fiscal year that ended in September 2018, which was 107,212. Many believe Central Americans see Trump’s “zero tolerance” migration policies as a “now or never” moment to ask for asylum in the United States before the doors are shut entirely. 

“It’s a bit Orwellian to ask governments to stop people from leaving,” says Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “With the ‘stick,’ it’s hard to see what exactly the Central American governments can do that would be legal that would help them turn around the number of people exiting their countries.”

“We can work with governments to change conditions on the ground,” he adds, “but that requires development aid” – and time.

It’s a lesson learned, in part, right at the southern border. For decades, the bulk of migrants attempting to cross into the U.S. there were Mexican. But starting in the late aughts, the number of Mexicans crossing without documentation fell dramatically, reaching a point of “net-zero” migration in 2012.

A number of factors played a role, from the end of Mexico’s single-party rule in 2000, to both countries’ shifting economies. But the U.S. did contribute to the decrease by incentivizing Mexico’s economic development, observers say. The North American Free Trade Agreement, implemented in 1994, was sold by consecutive U.S. administrations as a program to halt Mexican migration by way of creating more formal employment at home and plugging Mexico into the global economy.

But NAFTA was a piece “of the larger puzzle of Mexico’s development,” says Mr. Selee. “What Bush and Clinton didn’t mention was that it was going to take almost 15 years” for the agreement to create the kinds of opportunities that “give migrants hope to remain at home.” 

Subbing in for the state

Congress has given overwhelming bipartisan support to development aid in the Northern Triangle over the past several years, and is expected to contest Trump’s cuts.

The biggest portion of aid in the region has gone toward violence prevention and improving security and justice systems, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization that has tracked U.S. aid since 2016.

The packages contain almost no direct aid to governments, according to Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at WOLA. The closest they come to government hands is in security assistance for police forces, for example, or helping a finance ministry improve its budget management system.

“Since 2016, you’ve had bipartisan consensus that you need to address the factors that are driving irregular migration from the region,” says Ms. Beltrán. “This decision [to cut aid] is going to undermine all those efforts and worsen the situation.” She says she’s never seen development aid used to punish or pressure regional governments.

The Northern Triangle is plagued with violence, insecurity, and poverty. A 2015 investigation by Honduras’s La Prensa newspaper found that Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans pay roughly $390 million, $200 million, and $61 million, respectively, in yearly “fees” to organized crime groups in order to do anything from walk to school, take a certain bus route, or operate a small business. All three countries regularly rank as some of the most dangerous in the world not at war.

The kinds of civil society-run programs funded by U.S. development aid essentially do the work of the Northern Triangle’s weak public institutions, says Ursula Roldán, director of a migration research institute at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City.

“We’ve seen a complete deterioration of government institutions,” Dr. Roldan says, and that directly affects citizens. “Take agriculture. If you lose one harvest, you essentially have to leave. There’s no government support.”

But she still hasn’t seen aid packages deliver the dramatic changes that would offer more Guatemalans opportunities to remain at home.

“American aid to Central America has a lot of problems,” write regional experts and Haverford College professors Anita Isaacs and Anne Preston in a New York Times opinion piece this week. “Its total amounts are paltry, and it is mostly distributed inefficiently in large blocks by foreign contractors.” But it has shown results in places like El Salvador, they note, where violence-prevention programming has been credited with helping lower the homicide rate. Salvadoran migration to the U.S. more than halved between 2016 and 2018, according to U.S. statistics on border apprehensions.

“The moment to get tough is not because people are leaving, but because democracy [in the region] is backsliding,” says Mr. Selee, citing the Guatemalan and Honduran governments’ pushback against corruption-monitoring commissions. The Guatemalan government has repeatedly attempted, most recently in January, to remove CICIG, an internationally-backed body investigating top-level politicians, business people, and security officials.

“It was a missed opportunity [to intervene] and now we’re dealing with the symptoms,” he says.

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