April 23, 2019 / 8:02 PM / a month ago

U.S. lawmakers press Trump administration on Central American aid

A migrant from Honduras watch other migrants' cellphones as they gather in an improvised shelter during a break in their journey towards the United States, in Escuintla, Mexico April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee urged the Trump administration to reconsider its plan to cut aid to Central America, warning in a letter released on Tuesday that it could lead to increased Chinese influence.

The State Department said last month it would cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras after President Donald Trump sharply criticized them because thousands of their citizens had sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Assistance ... is having positive results, and while improvements can be made, we believe that cutting assistance would be counterproductive and lead to increased migration flows to the U.S.,” Representatives Eliot Engel, the committee’s Democratic chairman, and Michael McCaul, its ranking Republican, said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Cutting the aid would also raise doubts over the reliability of the United States as a consistent partner and create a void that China and other adversaries will look to fill, they said.

World leaders are meeting in Beijing next week for a summit on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which envisions connecting China with Asia, Europe and beyond with massive infrastructure spending. But it is viewed warily by Washington, which views the program as a way to spread Chinese influence and saddle countries with unsustainable debt.

Several members of Congress, where several lawmakers, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, have rejected the plan, saying it was cruel to cut off aid to countries grappling with hunger and crime and more likely to increase the number of migrants than decrease it.

State Department officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from Engel and McCaul.

Mark Green, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing earlier this month that the administration had no plan to change its decision until Trump is satisfied that the countries are doing enough to address migration.

Trump has made a hard line on immigration a central theme of his presidency, particularly regarding undocumented newcomers from Latin America via the southern border.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Susan Thomas

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