How do you stop someone from migrating? It’s the implicit question that defines the Trump administration’s policy agenda. And, so far, despite all the rhetoric and bombast, the White House seems unable to answer it.
Interdiction strategies — that is, arrests and deportations at the hands of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers — drive people into the shadows, harass communities, and often only ensure that would-be migrants eventually will try once again to cross into the U.S. The child-separation policy, which left so much of the American public in a collective state of horror, was premised on the notion that ripping kids out of their parents’ arms would serve as an immigration deterrent. It didn’t work: In September, after the child-separation policy hit a crescendo, more family units than ever were recorded crossing the U.S.-Mexico border — a trend that’s only continued in the months since.
As the administration continues to purge top-level Department of Homeland Security members and replace them with officials willing to be “tougher” on immigration, it’s also trying another approach. Donald Trump is cutting funding to the three countries in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — from which most asylum seekers are coming to the border. In announcing the suspension of aid, Trump blamed those countries themselves, saying vaguely that they “set up these [migrant] caravans.”
That financial assistance — $450 million was slated for 2018 — was distributed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and it was put to many uses, some that strengthened local economies and some that weakened them. The money at once poured funds into brutally abusive police and military forces and propped up an exploitative and often environmentally destructive export economy (typically textiles, palm oil, and bananas), but it also fostered community-run anti-violence programs. Reaction to the suspension of aid has been mixed. Some analysts decried the move as impetuous and counter-effective while others saw it as a positive step in curtailing the sponsorship of violence and corruption.
“Cutting off U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle hurts the U.S. government much more than the people of Central America.”
In responding to Trump’s decision to cut aid to Central America, many U.S. legislators were forced into a political balancing act, decrying the president’s austerity while also admitting that the U.S. may, in fact, need a reset in how it figures its aid to the region. The only Guatemalan-born member of Congress, Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat, said in a statement, “I support the suspension of assistance… [but] what President Trump is trying to do is very different: he wants to punish the people of these countries for the failures of their governments.” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida sympathized with Trump’s frustration in a series of tweets but also called the decision “counterproductive.”
But the suspension of aid might have bigger repercussions on U.S. political leverage in Central America than it will have substantive effects on migration patterns. “Cutting off U.S. aid to the Northern Triangle hurts the U.S. government much more than the people of Central America,” says Hilary Goodfriend, a writer whose work on Latin America often appears in Jacobin magazine. “I have no doubt that many in the State Department are furious that Trump would deny the U.S. one of its most important tools of intervention.” Sure enough, five former military commanders condemned the move this week, claiming it would result in more northward migration.
It would be against the interests of the Northern Triangle countries to stop migration. Remittances sent home from Guatemalans working in the U.S. amount to over $9 billion dollars a year while both Honduras and El Salvador take in as much as one-fifth of their GDP through remittances. Antagonizing these countries by pulling aid isn’t going to get them to cooperate by somehow barring their citizens from departing — which, after all, also happens to be illegal.
Of course, if the goal is to stop migration, or at least forced migration, it’s a good idea to ask why people are leaving in the first place — and to question how aid might be best used to help create communities that Central Americans no longer feel compelled to flee.