Go home, and don’t come backDonald Trump cuts off aid to Central America

American assistance did not stop the exodus from the Northern Triangle. Neither will ending it

IN 2014 THOUSANDS of children from Central America’s Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—turned up at the United States’ southern border. President Barack Obama convinced a Republican-controlled Congress to double American aid to the region to reduce the violence and poverty that help cause mass migration. Now it has surged again, but Mr Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has favoured a different tack. Despite “taking our money”, Northern Triangle countries are “doing absolutely nothing” to prevent emigration, he complained. On March 31st he cut off $500m a year of aid to the region. Mexico (“all talk and no action”) did not escape his fury. He threatened to close the border between the two countries.

For a president elected on a promise to curb immigration, the numbers are provoking. In February 76,000 migrants were stopped trying to cross the United States-Mexico border. Among families and unaccompanied children, nearly all were Central Americans. Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, thinks nearly 100,000 came in March. If that rate is sustained all year the number of attempted border-crossings will approach the historic peak reached in 2000, of 1.6m.

Mr Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric kept people away at first. Border apprehensions dropped in the 18 months after he won the presidency in November 2016. People who put off their journeys then are now making them. Tougher American policies on its border, such as separating children from parents and slowing the processing of asylum claims, are not deterring migrants. Many of them see this as a “now or never moment”, analysts say. People-smuggling gangs encourage that belief.

They are now especially active in impoverished rural Guatemala, which has been hurt by drought and low coffee prices. A new smuggling network packs Guatemalans into buses, which take them to the American border in days. Half of the families caught there are Guatemalan. Most are seeking asylum. They are not single men trying to cross illegally. So “coyotes”, as smugglers are called, have no need to sneak them into the United States.

More visible are “caravans” of hundreds, or even thousands, of migrants, usually starting in Honduras. Travelling initially on foot, they find safety in numbers and in the attention they get from the media. (They also attract Mr Trump’s notice; he calls them an “invasion”.) Mexico’s new left-wing president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has more sympathy for them than his predecessor did and has done less to stop them. As migration has soared, deportations by Mexico have fallen.

Mr Trump’s aid cut-off is a blunt instrument. It hurts El Salvador, home to 37% of families with children apprehended in 2016 but only 9% of them this year, as much as the other two countries. It ends financial support for security forces and police battling drug-trafficking to the United States. Mr Trump has not made clear what governments might do to restart the aid flow.

The surge in migration does not justify Mr Trump’s claim that the aid has done no good. The Northern Triangle’s high murder rate, one big reason that people flee, has dropped sharply, thanks partly to American aid. Some observers contend that the exodus would have been even bigger without that decline.

Administrators of aid say its goal was to strengthen things like law enforcement, employment and tax collection, which is a slow process. Aid becomes ever more effective over time as lessons are learnt, says Marcela Escobari, an American aid official under Mr Obama. Continuity matters. Plan Colombia helped bring peace to that country because it was sustained for 15 years without cuts, Ms Escobari says.

Mr Trump is also wrong to claim that aid recipients are “doing nothing” for the money. Already, it comes with conditions: the United States can withhold 25% if a country does not go after people-trafficking networks or deter migration. Half depends on progress in 12 areas of governance, such as tax collection and tackling corruption. Northern Triangle governments must also spend billions of dollars of their own money on state-building. Such conditional aid “empowers the right people” within governments, says Juan Ricardo Ortega of the Inter-American Development Bank.

Mexico has had some success in placating Mr Trump. On March 28th its government said it would form a “containment belt” at the country’s narrowest point. After Mexico arrested some people-smugglers on April 1st, Mr Trump tweeted his gratitude. He stopped threatening to close the border, perhaps because advisers pointed out that this would hurt both economies. The Northern Triangle, it seems, has less clout in Washington.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Go home, and don’t come back"
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