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Democratic appropriator urges end to aid to Northern Triangle countries

Torres says the aid isn't slowing migration to the US

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., a member of House Appropriations, says she wants to 'defund all three countries' in the Northern Triangle.
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., a member of House Appropriations, says she wants to 'defund all three countries' in the Northern Triangle. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that Washington annually provides to several Central American countries as part of an effort to reduce the numbers of desperate migrants who flock to the U.S. southern border could be in jeopardy if a Democratic appropriator with years of experience on the issue has anything to say about it.

Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., a first-generation immigrant from Guatemala and one of the biggest proponents on Capitol Hill of targeted development assistance to the region, said at a recent House Appropriations State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee hearing that she wanted to cut off all foreign aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. 

“My budget priorities this year is to defund all three countries completely of all programs,” Torres told Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, at an April hearing about the agency’s fiscal 2024 budget request. “I don’t know how we can look at a U.S. taxpayer in the face and say … ‘what we are doing is preventing people from coming north.’”

Torres’ comment raised eyebrows. That view is more generally associated with Republicans, who are more critical about the effectiveness of aid to the three countries, which have been beset for decades by the systemic and intertwined problems of corruption, conflict, crime and poverty that have led to huge numbers of citizens seeking a life elsewhere, especially in the U.S.

Power, perhaps aware that losing Torres’ support could jeopardize prospects for over $1 billion in fiscal 2024 foreign aid funding for Central America requested by the Biden administration, pleaded with Torres to rethink her position.

“I would appeal to you before getting too entrenched in this position or this goal, to allow me personally or our team, with your staff, to walk you through exactly what we are funding in these programs … in these three countries,” Power said to Torres. “We are talking about gang reduction programs. We are talking about, you know, in areas of high out-migration, significant investments in education. We are talking about … combating gender-based violence, in a manner that’s making a meaningful difference for every individual who is touched.”

The administration’s fiscal 2024 request for Central America includes nearly $740 million for USAID. That funding is part of the administration’s “Root Causes Strategy” — a broader plan to spend $4 billion over four years on activities aimed at reducing poverty, violence and corruption in the region. The hope is that improving the quality of life for people in the Northern Triangle will lead to less migration through Mexico to the U.S.

In fiscal 2022, U.S. border agents counted almost 521,000 Northern Triangle migrants at the southern border, according to a December Congressional Research Service policy brief. A majority of those were expelled under a pandemic-related public health order called Title 42, which permits agents to bar entry for migrants without hearing their asylum claims.

The White House is allowing that Trump administration order to expire on May 11. With its end, there is expected to be a significant increase in the number of migrants from the Northern Triangle seeking to enter the U.S. via Mexico.

Aid effectiveness questioned

“We also provide not $1 to the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala,” Power said at the House hearing. “We invest in civil society that are holding those governments accountable, including independent media, including anti-corruption organizations.”

In an interview, Torres doubled down on her objections to continued foreign aid to the Northern Triangle. While she lamented the ground lost when the Trump administration in 2019 suspended foreign aid to the region, which Biden resumed when he came into office, she also placed blame on corrupt local elites.

“They have fallen so far behind where they were nine years ago that I just don’t see how we can possibly continue to fund programs in the region when we have thousands of people from those countries coming to our southern border,” said Torres, who founded the bipartisan Congressional Central America Caucus.

Republicans are already dubious about spending more on foreign aid to the Northern Triangle. If regional migration to the southern border goes up, as is expected when Title 42 ends this month, it could further complicate the administration’s effort to secure a large aid request.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last week narrowly approved a partisan Central America migration enforcement policy bill that would make it U.S. policy “to ensure that humanitarian and development assistance funding aimed at reducing illegal immigration is not expended on programs that have not proven to reduce illegal immigrant flows in the aggregate.”

Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who sponsored the legislation, said in an interview the decision by Honduras this year and the 2018 decision by El Salvador to switch diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China has caused him to sour on the region.

“You’re seeing a drift away from the United States to China. … It’s a mess, just a mess,” said McCaul. He added that “Guatemala is in a very different situation,” as that country still recognizes Taipei and the government there is still “very pro-United States.”

Torres said she would like to see foreign aid redirected to support the Latin American countries grappling with influxes of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries as well as from Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“I would much rather work with Mexico in figuring out how can we safely protect those young children, those asylum-seekers. I’d rather work in countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, South American countries that are also helping Venezuelans in migrating into their countries,” she said. “I think better spent money would be to refocus that money in other areas.”

Carlos Ponce, a professor at Columbia University focusing on international nonprofit management in Latin America, said the theory behind the efforts by the Obama and Biden administrations to use foreign aid to tackle the root causes of mass migration in the Northern Triangle was a reasonable one, but its implementation has been “a historical disaster.”

“You are talking about endemic problems, problems with these countries that have been there for decades,” said Ponce, a former director for Latin American programs at Freedom House, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Because U.S. foreign aid is structured in two-year and three-year appropriation cycles, projects have short windows for accomplishing their goals. And much of that time is spent getting the aid program launched and staff hired. Once the aid projects begin, they are often focused on getting locals to participate in activities rather than ensuring that such participation is leading to actual improved outcomes in the root drivers of migration, he said.

Ponce castigated what he said was a culture of “rent seeking” in the foreign aid contractor and nonprofit community, which can be top-heavy with significant resources consumed by the salaries of U.S. contractors, including relocation expenses.

He estimated that roughly half of an aid contract gets spent in Washington in a process that he termed “legal corruption.”

“Inefficiency, bureaucracy, rent-seeking and a bad system that is only made for consultants and contractors and nonprofits to retain the majority of the money of the taxpayer,” Ponce said. “It is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work and they [beneficiaries] don’t want to do anything about it.”

USAID has said it intends over the next four years to direct 25 percent of Central America aid to local development partners. The fiscal 2023 omnibus designated $100 million for USAID to fund locally led development efforts in Central America.

But U.S. lawmakers are worried about legislative measures being considered by Northern Triangle governments that would restrict local civil society organizations’ ability to receive such foreign aid.

“We are concerned that legislation proposed or enacted in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will impact our efforts to promote community-led development and support a more democratic, prosperous region; this legislation should be considered an obstacle to our bilateral cooperation,” reads a late January letter to senior State Department and USAID officials by Democratic lawmakers including Torres, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.

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