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U.S. Aid At Risk For Countries Whose Citizens Joined Migrant Caravan


All right. Now let's get some perspective on that highly publicized caravan that's heading for the United States. There are dramatic pictures showing about 7,000 people on the road out of violent Honduras. Now, these are real families with real stories as we've reported on NPR. But it is not as big an event as news stories might suggest. A few thousand of those people may reach the U.S. And if they're like people in past caravans, they'll probably request legal entry. But remember; the U.S. accepts more than 1 million legal permanent residents every year.


The reason you're hearing about the caravan at all is because of the symbolic use being made of these very real human beings. Migration activists hope to call attention to Central American suffering. President Trump has used the caravan to stoke fear before an election. He falsely spoke yesterday of plots to, quote, "overwhelm" the United States. He kept the caravan in the news by threatening to cut off aid to Central American countries. Now, the aid that he threatened was actually designed to address the problem of migration that he was complaining about. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump is sounding increasingly frustrated with how Central American countries are handling migration.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador - they're paid a lot of money. Every year, we give them foreign aid. And they did nothing for us - nothing.

KELEMEN: He's now warning those countries that he will start cutting off or substantially reducing foreign aid, though some lawmakers are pushing back.

ELIOT ENGEL: It's like cutting off your nose despite your face. And that's what the president's doing here.

KELEMEN: That's Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He says the president may be frustrated and angry about the caravan of migrants coming from those three countries and moving through Mexico, but cutting aid won't help.

ENGEL: Well, that just makes the situation worse. We should be working with these countries to try to help alleviate some of the problems that are driving people to come to the United States in the first place.

KELEMEN: U.S. aid in the region is meant to do just that, addressing the root causes of migration by improving security and rule of law. Last year, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, the U.S. provided about $838 million in foreign assistance to Central America and Mexico. And it is making a difference on the ground according to Rick Jones, who spoke to us from El Salvador where he works for Catholic Relief Services.

RICK JONES: The history, the economics and these societies are completely interconnected. So it's very much in the interest of the United States to see that development happens here, that violence is reduced here because it's pushing people into situations of irregular migration.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration is reviewing all U.S. aid, making clear to countries that receive assistance that they should support U.S. interests. Congressman Engel points out that Congress holds the purse strings. And he and his colleagues won't sit quietly by if the administration tries to go around the will of Congress.

ENGEL: We keep hearing from the administration that everybody has to obey the law. Well, how about the president obeying the Impoundment Control Act, which prohibits the president from withdrawing or impounding money appropriated by Congress?

KELEMEN: But don't expect any quick moves on this, says James Roberts, a former foreign service officer now with The Heritage Foundation - a conservative Washington think tank.

JAMES ROBERTS: There are dozens of programs in the three countries. And they could be reviewed. Not all of them are effective. Many are too small really to make a long-term difference. It's often difficult to measure their impact.

KELEMEN: While Roberts would like a thorough review, he points out that it takes time and needs to be coordinated with Congress. He also argues that it is in U.S. interests to help these countries boost security and economic opportunities for people in the region to keep them home.

ROBERTS: Aid cannot begin to solve all the problems of these countries. It has to be from private sector flows of investment. Aid is a very small piece of that puzzle.

KELEMEN: The State Department won't say whether it has received orders from the White House to cut aid. Officials add that they believe Central American governments are discouraging their citizens from taking the dangerous journey north.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDED BABIES' "EAGLE MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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