State Department budget calls Central America a top priority

A group of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador were captured near Granjeno, Texas. A flood of unaccompanied minors from troubled Central America has focused attention on violence and poverty there.
A group of migrants from Honduras and El Salvador were captured near Granjeno, Texas. A flood of unaccompanied minors from troubled Central America has focused attention on violence and poverty there. AP

While destroying the Islamic State remains the State Department’s top priority in President Barack Obama’s new budget request for 2017, curbing illegal immigration from Central America has become a major priority, on par with with countering Russian aggression.

The budget proposal sent to Congress on Tuesday requested $750 million for the State Department to fight poverty, improve security and reform government in Central America, reflecting the administration’s effort to counter the flight of unaccompanied children and families from the region’s violence. That’s on top of another $750 million that Congress approved in December for aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and in addition to $250 million that would be spent by other government departments.

Latin American experts gave the administration points for trying, but said the funding proposal was still too small to make a difference in a region that Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have cited in recent weeks as in crisis. Experts said a dramatic change in the deep and widespread structural problems that plague the region was unlikely.

“Because it’s the second priority, at least in the order it was listed, it shows the U.S. wants to be engaged,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University. “It does show a level of engagement that is important. It’s important. But it’s insufficient.”

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which make up what’s known as the Northern Triangle, are three of the most violent countries in the world. More than 900 people were murdered in El Salvador in August, according to that country’s Institute of Legal Medicine. That’s an average of more than 30 a day.

Last year, agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended 337,117 people trying to enter the United States along its southern border. Of those, 43,564 were from El Salvador, 57,160, from Guatemala and 33,848, from Honduras.

The State Department money aimed at tackling the “root causes of migration” is less than the $4.1 billion for destroying ISIS and $2.5 billion for security in Afghanistan. It’s closer to the $953 million in State Department aid sought to help Ukraine and European allies counter Russian aggression.

“With these resources we will continue to implement our strategy to address the underlying factors driving migration from the region,” said Heather Higginbottom, deputy secretary of state for management and resources.

But it’s nowhere near the more than $10 billion in sustained aid the U.S has provided to Colombia since 2000 to combat drugs and drug-related violence. That figure, or more, is what Gamarra said was likely to be needed to address the poverty, gang problems and drug trafficking in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said it was important to put the Central American spending in the same context as total overall U.S. spending in other areas. He pointed out that in addition to the State Department funds, the Pentagon plans to quadruple spending in Europe by purchasing $3.4 billion in weapons and armored vehicles to help NATO countries countering Russian President Vladimir Putin and more than $4 billion for security in Afghanistan.

“If the solution involves strengthening the states in Central America from which the migrants come, then $1 billion is modest money,” O’Hanlon said in an email. “Remember that we spend much more than that on aid to Afghanistan!”

But the more than $1 billion in non-military spending on Central America illustrates the widespread concern in the United States about the migrant crisis and the political problem it creates for Obama and Democratic presidential candidates, who are calling for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.

Kerry announced in January that the United States would team with the United Nations to set up refugee screening centers in Central America in hopes of processing would-be migrants before they reach the United States.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security continues to deport families – many of whom have requested asylum because of the violence – to those same countries. More than 121 people were apprehended during immigration raids over the New Year’s holiday.

“What we see developing is a partial understanding by the government that at least outside of this country there is a refugee issue,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. “But they continue to treat it as a border/immigration enforcement issue within the United States.”