Trump's Cuts to Foreign Aid Could Intensify the Migration Crisis. Is That What He Wants?

Over the weekend, the president announced plans to hold back funds earmarked for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
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Salvadorean migrants heading in a caravan to the U.S. cross the Suchiate River to Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on November 2nd, 2018.

Salvadorean migrants heading in a caravan to the U.S. cross the Suchiate River to Mexico, as seen from Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala, on November 2nd, 2018.

President Donald Trump has long threatened to end foreign aid to the three Central American countries sending the majority of asylum seekers and migrants to the United States' southern border, arguing that those countries' governments aren't doing enough to stop people from leaving. In October of last year, he threatened to immediately cut foreign aid to Honduras if that country's president did not somehow capture and detain all the people leaving the country in one of the so-called migrant caravans.

But Trump's latest threat seemed less empty: Over the weekend, the president's declaration that he would cancel foreign aid was coupled with a Department of State announcement that the agency will hold back funds earmarked for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Democrats immediately objected to the pronouncement, arguing that foreign aid to the three countries actually serves in the U.S.'s interest, by helping combat the crime and violence that motivate so many people to leave for the U.S. As Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) told NBC News, foreign aid to Central America "is not charity," but rather "advances [the U.S.'s] strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens."

Increased foreign aid to Honduras, in particular, coincided with a massive decrease in the violent death rate in recent years. Though migration rates have gone up during the same time period, experts say that the effect of domestic changes in migration patterns can have a delayed appearance: The decision to leave one's country is often difficult and expensive, and people can take multiple years to save up the money and prepare to leave. Researchers have found a direct correlation between homicide rates and increased migration.

As experts in migration and Central America spent the weekend trying to explain their view that foreign aid is, in fact, one of the U.S.'s best strategies for decreasing migration to the southern border, some analysts wondered if Trump's decision might be in line with a different, unstated goal: What if Trump was actually trying to fuel the asylum crisis?

"Pay attention folks. This is an INTENTIONAL act to drive MORE asylum seekers to the US border to help [Trump] maintain his crisis. It's ugly, devastating in impact, and bad policy," Gary Segura, an expert in polling and public opinion, tweeted on Saturday. (The dean of the University of California–Los Angeles' Luskin School of Public Affairs, Segura has directed polling and research on American public opinion for over 18 years.)

During the 2018 mid-term elections, Trump attached himself to immigration as his primary campaign message, working to frame the issue as a crisis. As I wrote last November:

In the weeks leading up to the 2018 election, President Donald Trump ignored the pleas of his advisers to focus on the economy and instead chose to center immigration in his campaign messaging. Just before Election Day, Trump's campaign released an advertisement that many news stations, including Fox News, deemed too racist to air. The ad insinuated that immigrants from Latin America bring crime and violence to the United States—even though most research indicates that immigrant communities, both documented and undocumented, commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born Americans.

The mid-terms proved a rout for Republican candidates, and many questioned Trump's decision to focus on immigration as a central issue. (Democrats, for their part, seemed to succeed by centering their message around health care.) However, since the elections, Trump appears to have only doubled down on immigration as his primary focus, as seen in the border wall-motivated government shutdown.

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