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.


The U.S. has over a centurylong history of “aiding” Central America, including the direct toppling of governments and brazen support for genocidal regimes. At the height of the Cold War proxy campaign in Central America, the U.S. threw its weight behind the Salvadoran government, which was trying to rout the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Despite knowing full well the Salvadoran government’s penchant for death squads and civilian torture, the Reagan administration pumped up to $1 million dollars a day of military funding into the country. At the same time, the U.S. was using Honduras as its staging ground, dumping millions of dollars of military aid into the country, ignoring reports of egregious human rights abuses, and going so far as bestowing military medals to the notorious death squad commander Gustavo Álvarez Martínez. In Guatemala, the CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz in 1954. The toppling of Árbenz plunged the country into a 36-year civil war — throughout which the U.S. continued pulling strings and delivering dollars and materials — that left at least 200,000 dead.

Even today, the U.S. continues to prop up political regimes it views as advantageous to its own geopolitical strategy. In Honduras, for example, the U.S. quickly recognized Juan Orlando Hernández after his theft of the 2017 presidential election and continues to fund and train police forces that regularly target and imprison his political opponents.

Though the targets have shifted from Cold-War-era communists to gang members and drug traffickers, the U.S. still supports iron-fisted tactics. “The United States pours funding into Honduran police and military that are deeply embedded in drug trafficking, organized crime, and extortion and who commit hideous human rights abuses with impunity,” says Dana Frank, a historian at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of The Long Honduran Night, which offers a sweeping look at U.S. intervention in Honduras. “Trump’s announcement [to suspend aid] should prompt a vigorous debate in the U.S. about what our tax dollars are indeed paying for,” Frank says.

Even some of the nonmilitary aid is compromised. In Honduras, for example, after the Cold War wound down, the U.S. began seeing the country as a potential territory for neoliberal expansion, leading the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to fund targeted infrastructure projects and construct maquiladoras, or sweatshop factories. IMF and U.S. backed Honduran corporations built roads and factories to produce and export goods — mainly textiles — but neglected to fund sewage, water, garbage, or electricity projects for the neighborhoods where the maquila workers lived — effectively creating gang-incubating slums.

In cutting U.S. aid to the region, Trump ironically may have floundered into alignment with some of the most fervid critics of U.S. imperialism. “The decision to cut off the system is not motivated by any rational analysis of the impact of the aid on the ground or whether or not it’s effectively contributing to improving the conditions that make people feel like they have to migrate,” says Geoff Thale, vice president of programs for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights research group.

Still, Thale concedes that some aid did, in fact, lead to positive developments. He cites the Crime and Violence Prevention Project, which pinpoints neighborhoods that are suffering from violence to focus resources (based on a model developed in Los Angeles), and Catholic Relief Services, which assists farmers in planting traditional and sustainable crops among other projects. “The strategy [of targeted community aid] is very place-specific,” Thale says. “It involves bringing in the mayor and the schools and the community organizations. My personal view is that that is the right approach.”

Likewise, in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, journalist Sonia Nazario wrote about a women’s group in the violence-plagued López Arellano neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, that receives USAID support. The group runs training programs to educate women about domestic violence and was integral in passing national domestic violence laws. Though Honduras remains a country with a severe domestic violence problem — one that sends thousands of women fleeing the country — crimes against women are going down.

The correlation between violence and migration, especially among youth, was underscored recently by Dara Lind, writing in Vox that “one study of child migration found that the communities in Central America that reduced their homicide rates from 2011 to 2016 reduced child emigration as well: A drop of 10 homicides a year caused about six fewer children from that community to be apprehended coming into the U.S.” Cutting all aid, including the portions allocated for successful crime prevention programs, is using a battle-ax when a scalpel would be much more effective.

The evidence backs up an obvious answer to the question undergirding Trump’s inchoate immigration policy: The safer and more robust a community, the less people will want to leave it.