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Beyond Migration: Humanitarian Assistance to the Northern Triangle

At the end of March 2019, President Donald Trump announced that aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – a region otherwise known as the Northern Triangle – would be cut. The decision served as a rebuke against the three countries for failing to stop migrants from crossing the US border. More recently, the Trump administration declared that previously allocated aid would continue, yet new funds would not be awarded until the Northern Triangle governments took action to curb the flow of migration. Cutting funding to the Northern Triangle, however, is problematic for two reasons: 1) the structural causes of migration are affected by aid programs, and 2) the benefits of US foreign assistance should not be predicated on immigration outcomes. Instead of cutting assistance to the Northern Triangle, President Trump should promote the effective use of congressionally-approved funds while also supporting the allocation of further funding to the region. Congress should build on the legislative efforts started by House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders in May 2019 and pass policies to protect future aid to Central America.

U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. David J. Murphy/Released ©2015

The demographic make-up of who is migrating across the US southern border has changed dramatically over the years, as migration from Mexico has dropped significantly and migration from the Northern Triangle has steadily increased. Today, over half of southwest border apprehensions are of migrants from the Northern Triangle and around one in every five Salvadorans live in the United States.

Those migrating from the Northern Triangle frequently do so out of desperation caused by a severe lack of economic opportunity and continued violence in the region. The Northern Triangle has consistently ranked as one of the world’s most deadly regions outside of a war zone, and weak institutions have left many residents with little hope of protection by the authorities. Extortion is common practice, with 2015 statistics showing that Salvadorans pay around $400 million every year in extortion fees. In addition, lack of political will and capacity, along with corruption, have left state institutions underfunded and limited the government’s ability to respond to natural disasters and food insecurity. All of these factors help perpetuate chronic poverty and drive further migration to the United States.

There is abundant evidence that US aid programs affect the structural and institutional challenges that often cause migration. A recent US Agency for International Development (USAID) study found that USAID programs in Guatemala brought about the creation of more than 78,000 jobs between 2013 and 2017, and led to “dramatic improvements” in the investigation and prosecution of extortion. A USAID-funded program implemented by Mercy Corps in Guatemala led to a 30 percent reduction in thinking about migration either “all the time” or “very frequently.” In 50 El Salvadoran municipalities, USAID programs caused an average decline in homicides by 45 percent between 2015 and 2017. Residents in Honduras also benefited from USAID programs, with agriculture investments creating over 4,300 jobs in 2017, around 43 percent of which were filled by women. If the current administration wants to effectively address migration from the Northern Triangle, cutting aid programs is both “misguided” and “counterproductive,” as a number of US leaders, including both Republicans and Democrats, have stated.

Withholding aid from the Northern Triangle, however, is not only against the administration’s goals, but also against broader US interests and values. The Trump administration has tied the purpose of foreign assistance directly to migration outcomes. While US aid and development programs are frequently meant to improve US national security, they also serve and support a myriad of other US objectives, from commercial interests to humanitarian concerns. Humanitarian aid particularly, unlike other types of US assistance, is meant to be offered outside of political or national security objectives and has seen a long history of bipartisan support. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 specifically reaffirms humanitarian principles and the United States’ “commitment to assist people in developing countries to eliminate hunger, poverty, illness, and ignorance.” Creating long-term stability in the Northern Triangle reinforces US global leadership and supports US values of human rights, the rule of law, and economic prosperity. Most importantly, however, these programs improve the lives of people in the Northern Triangle and have moral and humanitarian value in and of themselves. These programs provide basic necessities, empower women, and allow people to create and access opportunities otherwise unavailable to them.

This past May, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul introduced legislation that authorizes $577 million in foreign aid to Central America for fiscal year 2020. The bill is meant to address the “root causes of migration” and prohibits the assistance from being rescinded, reprogrammed, or transferred. This proposal is meaningful and should be passed by Congress and supported by President Trump, but it is important to recognize the value and purpose of foreign aid without tying it to migration outcomes. Foreign assistance to Central America should be increased, and officials must create legislation that recognizes the purpose of humanitarian assistance without tying it to political or national security objectives. These programs help Central Americans and that in of itself should be enough to support their continuation.

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Deanna Woodman

Deanna Woodman currently works for a nonprofit engaged in public-interest investigations. She has previously held research positions at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Atlantic Council. She graduated with her master's degree from the University of St Andrews in 2018 and holds a bachelor's degree from UCLA.

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