Trump admin resumes some aid to Central America in exchange for asylum cooperation

PHOTO: DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, El Salvadors Minister of Security Rogelio Rivas, and Honduran Minister of Security Julian Pacheco attend a news conference.PlayJose Cabezas/Reuters
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The Trump administration will resume some foreign aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that was previously withheld, as officials worked to secure agreements to send U.S. asylum seekers back to those Central American countries, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

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The release of aid was welcomed by lawmakers of both parties that were sharply critical of the decision to withhold it, but the paltry amount compared to what Congress obligated has ignited a new wave of anger.

"I urge the administration to keep working with Congress to restore the remaining foreign assistance funding for the region and to develop a clear strategy that ensures that our assistance is effective in meeting our stated objectives," said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The agreements resemble “safe third country” deals that require asylum applicants to first apply for refuge in the country they pass through before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. After reaching deals with all three countries, the administration has effectively barred any asylum seeker passing through Central America to the southern U.S. border from making a claim, regardless of the legitimacy of their claims of persecution.

“I look forward to the continued coordination and collaboration between our governments,” Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan -- who gave his resignation on Oct. 11 -- said in a statement Thursday night. “I have confidence that we will continue to take the necessary steps to establish a regional framework for migration management and a safer, more secure region.”

The agreements have been criticized given the violence and lack of opportunity that makes these countries far from "safe" and because each lacks the infrastructure needed to process large amounts of asylum claims or absorb asylum seekers into their societies.

President Donald Trump announced in March he was slashing funding to the three Central American governments that make up the region known as the Northern Triangle. The area has been a major source of mass migration to the southern border over the past year.

PHOTO: DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, El Salvadors Minister of Security Rogelio Rivas, and Honduran Minister of Security Julian Pacheco attend a news conference. Jose Cabezas/Reuters
DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan, El Salvador's Minister of Security Rogelio Rivas, and Honduran Minister of Security Julian Pacheco attend a news conference.

The White House authorized the release of the funding earlier this week following a request from McAleenan, according to an administration official. Another source familiar with the administration's plans estimated the funding would amount to $140 to $180 million.

By comparison, Congress had obligated $180 million to Honduras alone in fiscal year 2017, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

State Department and Homeland Security officials have not responded to questions about how much money would be restarted or for what specific programs.

Trump first announced the change in a vague tweet on Wednesday, saying the aid would help end the "scourge of human smuggling."

"Some targeted" funding would include programs to expand the Northern Triangle’s capacity to receive asylum seekers and to "create economic opportunity [and] promote rule of law, institution building, and good governance," according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The region is known to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world and the State Department has cautioned Americans from traveling there.

The money will fund private-public partnerships for economic development as well as training for Central American authorities and the development of security infrastructure like new immigration checkpoints and document verification systems, the administration official added.

The move to slash funding was roundly criticized as undermining efforts toward economic development in the region, which the administration often cites as a central cause of the mass migration seen in the past year. While restarting funding was welcomed by some lawmakers, several others demanded more details on what the administration is restarting.

"Significant damage has already been done," New York Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said on Wednesday. "I continue to call for the immediate and full restoration of U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle."