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Why Trump wants to cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras

Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified the CEO of InterAction. His name is Sam Worthington. This report has also been updated to show that InterAction has 180 member organizations, not 60. More than 60 organizations have signed on to its criticism of the Trump administration’s proposed redistribution of funds away from the Northern Triangle.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen recently declared a "compact” with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, aiming to reduce their migration to the U.S. But since then, the Trump administration said it will cut aid to those countries, including to programs that seek to address the violence and poverty making their residents desperate to flee. John Yang talks to Nick Schifrin for more.

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  • John Yang:

    Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited Honduras and announced what she called a historic regional compact to address the root causes of migration with the three countries known as the Northern Triangle, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

    But, over the weekend, the State Department announced it would cut all foreign assistance to those three countries. Today, Congress gave the State Department a deadline to provide details of the cuts.

    Congressional officials say they have not received any response.

    Nick Schifrin is here to make sense of this.

    Nick, what is this aid the United States gives these three countries?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. has given hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to try to address the endemic problems that are in the countries, in part to try and address the root causes of migration, the reason that so many people leave these countries, go through Mexico and try and reach the United States, things like violence.

    This is the most violent part of the world, outside of war zones. Things like endemic corruption, weak justice systems. At one point in these countries, 2 to 3 percent of all cases ended in conviction and poverty.

    And so what these programs try and do is, they try and lift people out of poverty, providing education, vocational programs, improving local governance, improving police forces and judicial systems. And their defenders say they are the only way, at least long term, to reduce all of those people who believe that their home is unsafe, and they have to go to the United States.

    And it's not just humanitarian aid organizations who defend these programs. Take a listen to Mike McCaul, Republican of Texas, and he's the most senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

  • Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas:

    I think it's going to make things tragically worse, not better.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And I talked with a lot of CEOs of aid organizations as well, including Sam Worthington of InterAction, an umbrella group of 180 organizations.

    And this is what he said to me. He said: "The root causes of these crises are in Central America. If we're addressing them at the southern border, it is too late. These local governments are overwhelmed by the quantity of the problem. And we are saying" — meaning the U.S. — "by cutting this aid, they do not have a partner."

  • John Yang:

    So why does the Trump administration say they're doing this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president, as we have all heard, has expressed deep frustration with the number of people who are leaving the Northern Triangle, what he calls a crisis.

    And over the weekend, we heard from Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, talking to CNN's Jake Tapper about why these countries weren't doing enough to address migration.

  • Mick Mulvaney:

    If we're going to give these countries hundreds of millions of dollars, we would like them to do more.

    That, Jake, I would respectfully submit to you, is not an unreasonable position. We could prevent a lot of what's happening on the southern border by preventing people from moving into Mexico in the first place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, that is exactly what these programs are designed to do, to prevent them from moving through Mexico into the United States.

    But there is a larger debate that even defenders of the aid have, and they say these governments should be doing more. And, as a congressional official who defends the aid put it to me earlier today, the U.S. should be telling these national governments, these three countries, that they need to improve all of their own programs, and that the U.S. is going to hold them accountable.

    That, of course, is different than saying, you're not doing enough. We're cutting all of this aid.

  • John Yang:

    So what details do we know of what aid is, what aid programs are going to be cut?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The administration has not provided any details to either Congress or the humanitarian organizations that do this.

    And, as you mentioned, there were deadlines today. The administration basically ignored them. The State Department, though, cannot just cut this aid. What little we know about this aid is, it comes from fiscal year 2017, fiscal year 2018, meaning, it's already been appropriated by Congress.

    And so what the State Department has to do is work with the Appropriations Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs Committee to talk about what they want to change. They can't just reprogram it by themselves.

    And I have talked to half-a-dozen people today who are frustrated, especially on the Hill, with the fact that they have not gotten these details. There was a deadline at 12:00 p.m. Foreign Affairs staffers telling me that they have been asking for briefings and that the State Department simply isn't ready to give those briefings.

    And I will be honest. I have talked to both State Department officials and White House of officials who admit that they really weren't prepared for this kind of announcement. So we still see the administration trying to figure out what to do and, frankly, come up with the details of the plan that's already been announced, John.

  • John Yang:

    Thanks, Nick Schifrin.

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