Trump’s action was the culmination of a months-long battle in the US government over the aid program, which grew substantially under the Obama administration and was intended to address the root causes of migration — violence, a lack of jobs and poverty.
Some Trump administration officials felt the program had failed to achieve enough results, and in recent months have been looking into alternatives. But the president’s decision to cut off the remaining funds appeared to take many people by surprise. It came just a day after Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of Homeland Security, signed what the department called a «historic» memorandum of cooperation on border security in Central America.
One former US official said there was «chaos» in the State Department and embassies overseas as officials tried to figure out whether they had to cancel existing contracts, or simply not renew them. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
The number of apprehensions along the US-Mexico border has been soaring, with more than 76,000 migrants taken into custody in February, most from Central America. On Friday night, during a trip to Florida, Trump faulted governments in the region for the increase.
«I’ve ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and El Salvador. No more money is going there anymore,» Trump told reporters. «We were giving them $US500 million. We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore because they haven’t done a thing for us.»
Democratic officials, aid groups and former officials said Trump’s action could boomerang, by shrinking or eliminating some of the very programs keeping would-be migrants in Central America.
«Ironically, our goals of having people stay and thrive in El Salvador are very similar to the current administration’s,» said Ken Baker, chief executive of at Glasswing International [glasswing.org], which runs education, health and entrepreneurship programs in El Salvador and receives USAID funding. «Through our programs we’ve been able to provide opportunities and the belief that they [would-be migrants] can thrive here.»
«The key is to get to them before» they leave for the United States, he said. «When you’re talking about the problem at the border in the US, it’s already too late.»
Jim Nealon, a former US ambassador to Honduras, said that Trump didn’t seem to understand the way the Central American aid program worked. The US government doesn’t give the money to foreign governments, but rather «to programs designed and implemented by the US, with the cooperation of governments and civil society,» he said. Much of them are administered by non-profit groups.
He also said Central American governments aren’t seeking to send their citizens to the United States. «To the contrary, they already cooperate with us in trying to deter migration. But they can’t prevent their citizens from leaving the country.»
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are among the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and among the most violent in the world.
Over the past year, Trump has seized on the formation of giant caravans of US-bound migrants as evidence that Mexico and Central America are doing little to discourage migration.
Authorities in the region have said they are taking what measures they can under their laws. Mexico, for example, has offered thousands of temporary humanitarian visas to migrants permitting them to stay and work in the country.
Raul Lopez, vice-minister of justice in El Salvador, said in an interview on Friday that the flow of migrants from his country was actually slowing.
«We see that as proof that our investment — and the investment of the international community — in social issues is working,» he said. «US assistance has had a positive impact in reducing migration from El Salvador, but we need more help to continue this fight.»
It was unclear whether Congress would attempt to block Trump’s decision to shift the Central American aid elsewhere. A delegation of congressional Democrats visiting El Salvador on Saturday called the’s move «counterproductive» and said they would «do everything in our power to push back on the president’s misguided approach to Central America.»
While Congress appropriates the money spent by the US government, the president has some wiggle room to reprogram funds, according to congressional staffers.
Unauthorised crossings of the US border have hit their highest level in a decade, although they are still well below the peak of 1.6 million in 2000. But the migrant flow has changed in character. While most migrants used to be Mexican men who could be easily deported, now they are asylum-seeking families who are entitled to protections under federal law.
Border Patrol agents have been overwhelmed in recent weeks by the arrival of large numbers of Central American families and children, many of whom are being quickly released into local communities because of a lack of detention space.
The announcement of the aid cutoff comes as a new caravan of about 2000 Central Americans and Cubans is crossing Mexico. Trump has threatened to close the border next week because of the rising flows of migrants.
Trump has also declared a national emergency to divert funds for construction of a giant border wall, but he is facing court challenges. Immigration analysts say a wall would do little to stop the flow of asylum seekers, who typically surrender to US officials as soon as they cross the border, to petition for relief.