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Trump Cuts To Central American Aid May Spark More Illegal Immigration

The move to end aid to Central American countries may run afoul of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

President Trump announced over the weekend that his administration will cut aid to three countries that White House staffers said were complicit in sending illegal immigrants to the United States. While the move will certainly be popular among the president’s base, it may prove to have an adverse effect on the problem at the southern border.

Despite a now-infamous chyron from Fox News announcing that the Trump Administration was cutting aid to “three Mexican countries,” the cuts were actually applied to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras but not to Mexico. The three Latin American countries are the source of many of the refugees that have joined migrant caravans seeking to enter the United States. As with many things Trump, there is both good and bad to what we know about the decision.

As a fiscal conservative who believes that the mounting national debt is the worst crisis that we currently face, I applaud almost any curbs to federal spending. The truth, however, is that these cuts are insignificant. The Wall Street Journal notes that the Trump Administration has not specified how much money would be cut, but points out that aid to the three countries amounts to between $500 million and $750 million each. In contrast, several countries in the Middle East and Africa receive more than $1 billion each and the combined amount of aid to all three nations is less than what President Trump has proposed to spend on his wall project.

Per the Journal, the State Department announced on Saturday that it had ended funding for the countries that was appropriated in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, but there was no mention of fiscal year 2019. The White House requested less than $400 million for the three countries in its 2020 budget proposal and pledged $5.8 billion in aid and public and private investment to strengthen economic development in Central America last December. The reversal leaves open the question of whether the policy decision was made on the spur of the moment by President Trump.

The Journal also notes that the White House did not explain how President Trump had the authority to withhold foreign aid payments that were lawfully appropriated by Congress. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 limited the president’s authority to impound appropriated funds by requiring that Congress vote to rescind funds that the president does not want to spend. If both the House and Senate do not vote to rescind the money within 45 days of continuous session, the money must be made available to the program for which it was appropriated. Historically, Congress has ignored most rescission requests and the Democrats in the House are unlikely to agree to the president’s request.

The president’s action also does not take into account the Law of Unintended Consequences. Aid to Central America was increased by the Obama Administration after a surge of unaccompanied minors arrived at the southern border in 2014. At the time, the Obama Administration requested $1 billion for a variety of programs that included anti-poverty, security and anti-crime, and anti-corruption initiatives. As US aid increased, the number of illegal border crossings from Latin America fell to its lowest level in decades, reaching a 45-year low in 2017.

Since 2016, the Trump Administration has reduced aid to Central America and the result has been a corresponding increase in illegal immigration. After several court rulings that make it more difficult to detain asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants with children, the number of arrests of family members on the southern border reached a record high in September 2018. In February, the total number of arrests reached a 10-year monthly high. Although the number of illegal border crossings remains low by historical standards, the increases in recent months may be part of a trend toward more illegal immigration under President Trump.

The Trump Administration is caught in cross-purposes with the cuts to foreign aid. While the cuts give President Trump the opportunity to look tough, they will likely exacerbate the problem of illegal immigration. It stands to reason that when money given to poverty-stricken countries for security and economic development is removed that their economic and political stability will get worse. This will create more refugees seeking to both escape political violence and find economic opportunity by immigrating to the United States.

While I am in favor of across-the-board cuts to the federal budget in general, if President Trump wants to slow illegal immigration, foreign aid to Central America seems to be money that has been well spent in terms of slowing the flow of migrants. Eliminating the aid may trigger a new surge of migrant caravans and contribute to what President Trump already considers to be a national emergency on the southern border.

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