Donald Trump recently pared away millions of dollars in aid to three central American countries – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. This was intended to coerce Central American governments to alter their immigration policies to minimize migration into the US. Will Trump’s decision to reduce humanitarian aid to Central American nations effectively address the South American border crisis?
Central America refers to a region at the southernmost tip of North America between Mexico and South America. The Central American subcontinent comprises of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Belize. Home to the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations and later colonized by the Spanish, Central American countries share a common history and culture. This has led to the creation of a strong Central American identity. In fact, the now independent nations were once unified as the Federal Republic of Central America.
The Central American countries Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador together form a region known as the “Northern Triangle.” This economically integrated region has faced widespread political instability since the 1980s. Several civil wars and coup d’état’s in the region have resulted in fragile systems of government which are prone to corruption. A lack of impunity among the governments of these countries has led to an increase in violence and inequality which in turn prompted hundreds of thousands of people to migrate north, eventually reaching the United States.
The United States has expanded its foreign policy in the Northern Triangle starting with the Bush Administration. Bush introduced and implemented the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) in 2008 in order to help Central American countries address pressing security and stability issues as well as their underlying causes. Ever since then, successive American governments have provided the region with billions of dollars in aid.
The U.S government announced on Monday that it would be cutting back millions of dollars in aid funding to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Authorities claim that this is primarily in response to the inadequate action taken by these countries to help control the influx of Central American migrants to America’s southern border. They further stressed that aid funding will not be reinstated until the US is satisfied that appropriate measures are being taken to address the issue of mass migration.
While Trump initially planned to scrap all aid, a statement from the State Department confirmed that for funds allocated from the 2017 budget, $432 million will be disbursed while $185 million would be temporarily withheld. $370 million from the 2018 budget, however, has been suspended indefinitely. All future funds will be released conditional upon appropriate action taken by the governments of the Northern Triangle.
Since Donald Trump took office in 2017, his administration has launched a campaign to introduce radical immigration reforms in response to a rapid influx of migrants trying to escape violence, murder, persecution, corruption, and poverty in their respective nations.
The Northern Triangle countries fall under the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world with some of the highest rates of homicide. There has been a dramatic escalation in organized crime with gang warfare claiming hundreds of lives annually. This has prompted thousands of people to migrate in search of safety and economic opportunity. But leaving their homes to seek refuge elsewhere is neither safe nor cheap. The migrants travelling north do so under harsh and often dangerous conditions, paying human traffickers anywhere between $3,500-$5,000 for safe passage into America.
The current US asylum laws make it extremely easy for people to migrate to the US without undergoing due procedure. Thousands of people have been allowed into the US before formally being offered asylum because of the increasing pressure on Mexican borders to detain migrants and process asylum requests. Additionally, thousands of migrants choose to enter illegally by swimming across water bodies or by being smuggled in. This makes it very difficult for authorities to asses just how many people are entering the country, and whether they do so legally.
In order to control the situation, the US threatened to levy tariffs on Mexican goods. In response, the Mexican government agreed to deploy 6,000 border security officers to its southern border with Guatemala to prevent illegal migration and detain migrants until they have been granted asylum. But the process to attain asylum could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and sometimes, even a few years. For the several hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in a political climate that is unsympathetic to migrants’ situations – prospects are bleak.
Resources for the sustenance of migrant caravans are slowly becoming scarce and scant. Medical care is inaccessible, as is access to food, clean water, clothes, and dry shelters. Detention camps are becoming overcrowded and hundreds of children are being separated from their mothers. A majority of the caravan migrants are women and children, several of whom have experienced abuse and domestic violence. While the entire situation is certainly a logistical nightmare , it is becoming increasingly clear that the migration issue has morphed into a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
Trump’s concerns regarding illegal aliens are not completely unfounded. Despite the fact that a majority of asylum seekers are truly in danger and fear for their lives back home, there are several others who are piggybacking on the cause and seeking entry into the US for less genuine reasons.
It is very possible that members of international drug cartels and gang members could also be among the hundreds of thousands waiting to gain entry into the US. MS-13 and M-18 are the largest gangs in the region and according to the FBI, there are currently at least 10,000 MS-13 members in the United States. If people continue to be smuggled across borders, there is a good chance that the number of gang members will increase – posing a serious threat to American security.
It is our assessment that Trump’s decision to cut back on aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras might further harm the current situation rather than help it. The aid money is extremely useful for these nations to build critical infrastructure, address pressing socio-economic issues, and enhance internal security measures. Without aid, these governments will have limited resources at their disposal to counter widespread violence and corruption.
We think that growing economic inequalities in these countries suggest that the aid is not as useful to the corrupt officials and the business elite as it would be to the downtrodden working classes. This means that cutting aid will not hurt the decision makers directly and is unlikely to incentivize them to take action. We feel that a more comprehensive action plan is required to tackle the issue at its source.
We predict that imposing sanctions on Mexico will also hinder Mexico’s ability to deal with the crisis effectively. Sanctions would hurt the Mexican economy and reduce the scope for employment. If the Mexican labor market is saturated, and growth is stagnant, it will not be economically feasible for Mexican authorities to accept a large number of migrants. Also, a fall in Mexican trade revenues would reduce the resources that could have been allocated toward border security.
We feel that the upcoming Guatemalan election might help leaders to improve bilateral ties with the US and cooperate with American authorities to control the migrant crisis. The Introduction of a stable system of governance that is resistant to corruption would greatly improve the Northern Triangle’s socio-economic conditions, making it suitable for displaced people to return home.