Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that sending foreign aid to Central American countries will be ineffective at stemming illegal immigration. You can find a counterpoint here, where Migration Policy Institute President Andrew Selee argues that foreign aid could be a factor in addressing the root causes of migration.
President Joe Biden and his administration continue to peddle the public relations snake oil that spending money in the Northern Triangle countries will help regain control of the southern border and reduce illegal immigration. The administration plans to spend $4 billion as part of its strategy to look like they’re trying to control the border, provide more than $300 million in emergency aid and has contemplated granting direct cash payments to migrants.
Providing foreign aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — whether directly to their governments or through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — will not effectively address the root causes of illegal migration as the aid is likely to be misused by leaders involved in systematic corruption from the sending nations.
In a recently declassified corruption report, the State Department accused more than 50 current or former senior officials of engaging or facilitating corruption in the Northern Triangle countries.
The current leaders of these three countries have not demonstrated leadership that would ensure foreign aid is used appropriately. Earlier this year, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele removed his country’s top judges and attorney general because they allegedly opposed his “health strategy” — moves that the U.S. special envoy for Central America called “unconstitutional.”
Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei recently appointed a chief of staff who is “considered Giammattei’s right hand…and has been criticized for alleged influence peddling and favoring people close to the president in state business.” And in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernandez is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for drug-trafficking allegations.
The corruption has become of such major concern to the Biden administration that it just sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the region to have “a very frank and honest” conversation with the governments of these countries.
Even if the aid were to not get into the hands of government officials — as the Biden administration continually insists — it is not unreasonable to suspect that it would still be misused by non-governmental organizations given the prevalence of corruption and criminal gangs. In fact, in 2018, two prominent Hondurans NGOs were found siphoning millions of dollars that did not reach their final destinations. Another prominent NGO in Guatemala was also recently found to be mismanaging its resources.
It does not matter whether the aid reaches the hands of the Northern Triangle governments or non-governmental organizations — foreign aid has historically proven that it does not do much to curb illegal migration from the region.
In recent years, foreign aid packages to the Northern Triangle have not produced results that justify continuing to spend billions in the region to reduce migration flows. In 2014, the Obama administration committed $750 million in the region after it experienced a historic humanitarian and border crisis. In FY 2014, immigration authorities apprehended roughly 239,000 migrants from these three countries. But in FY 2019, prior to COVID-19 travel and border restrictions, around 623,000 migrants were apprehended — a more than 160% increase in just five years.
And today, apprehension totals of single adults and unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle stand at some of the highest levels ever recorded. Clearly if the aid were working as intended, immigration authorities would be seeing fewer apprehensions — not increases in the short and long-terms.
Rather than shelling out foreign aid that will likely be misused and has already proven to be ineffective in controlling illegal migration, Biden and his administration must focus more on the pull factors that are encouraging migrants from the region to cross the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully.
Migrants from the Northern Triangle know that the path to enter the country unlawfully is easier than ever before. The administration has halted the vast majority of southern wall construction. In some areas there is no barrier separating the U.S. from Mexico. The Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program has been terminated — meaning the Obama-era “catch and release” policy is back in full-throttle. Rather than be detained or returned to their country of origin, unlawful migrants are now bused or flown to their destination of choice in the U.S. The Asylum Cooperation Agreements (ACA) with the Northern Triangle have been removed — meaning thousands of meritless asylum seekers are being released into the interior of the country with a court date years down the road. Many of these asylum seekers will never show up for their hearing and disappear without a trace.
Under this administration, migrants will have no problem remaining in the county unlawfully if they make it across the U.S.-Mexico border. Each agent within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is currently averaging one arrest every two months and in April, the agency deported fewer than 3,000 individuals — the lowest monthly total on record.
The message from the Biden administration is clear: The southern border is to remain unsecured and there is virtually no penalty for entering the country illegally. This concept serves as one of the largest pull factors for illegal migration from the region and has contributed to levels of illegal immigration never seen before in history. If President Biden and his administration seek to regain control of the southern border (which still remains unclear at this point), they must look beyond foreign aid. Restarting wall construction, reimplementing the MPP, reinstating the ACA, and reprioritizing immigration enforcement would all be more effective starting points.
Matthew Tragesser is press secretary at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington D.C.