April 2, 2019 / 1:00 AM / in 5 months

Officials puzzle over U.S. aid cuts to Central America

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - People inside and outside the Trump administration scrambled on Monday to figure out what aid it plans to cut from three Central American nations and how that is a good idea given that much of the money aims to curb migration.

FILE PHOTO: Central American asylum seekers are escorted out of the Chaparral border crossing gate after being sent back to Mexico by the U.S. in Tijuana, Mexico, January 30, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

The State Department said on Saturday it would carry out President Donald Trump’s repeated threats to end U.S. foreign assistance programs with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Without providing evidence, Trump said on Friday the countries had “set up” caravans of migrants in order to export them to the United States. A surge of asylum seekers from the three countries, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, has sought to enter the United States in recent days.

Congressional aides and U.S. officials said they were trying to establish what money would be eliminated, and even some of Trump’s fellow Republicans questioned the wisdom of curbing the aid, much of which aims to reduce violence, gang activity and the illicit drug trade - all factors that send migrants north.

“If we cut all this funding, and a lot of it, quite honestly, is seriously law enforcement that we’re doing down there ... I think it’s going to make things tragically worse, not better,” said Representative Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

The State Department did not elaborate beyond its weekend statement that it was “carrying out the President’s direction and ending FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle” and would engage Congress. The U.S. fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one congressional aide said it was his understanding the administration planned to reprogram – or dedicate to other purposes – about $450 million in fiscal-year 2018 funds.

In addition, according to the aide, the department planned to review fiscal-year 2017 and 2018 funds that have been obligated, but not spent, and redirect those to other purposes.

The aide and others said, however, that Congress had yet to receive any formal notices from the State Department about exactly which funds are involved, what they were originally for or where the department wants to reprogram them.

Asked if the department knew what programs would be cut, a second congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “If they do, they haven’t told us yet. My sense is they are trying to figure that out.”

‘TOTALLY COUNTERPRODUCTIVE’

A former U.S. official in contact with those still in the government said emails were flying around the State Department among officials trying to figure out what was going on.

“Nobody knows what this is,” he said, adding that by midday on Monday, no instructions had been sent to U.S. aid missions in the region on how to implement the decision.

The situation was reminiscent of a 2018 New Year’s Day tweet in which Trump appeared to decree an end to U.S. aid for Pakistan, sending officials scrambling to suspend security aid without even knowing how much they were freezing.

Critics argued the administration’s planned Central America aid cutoff would be tantamount to cutting off its nose to spite its face.

“It’s totally counterproductive,” said Rebecca Bill Chavez, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs during former President Barack Obama’s administration and who is now at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

“If the intent is to slow migration, this is going to have the opposite effect,” she added.

Speaking on ABC News’ “This Week” program on Sunday, acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the United States needed more help from the “Northern Triangle” countries and Mexico, where the migrants typically enter the United States.

“You can make all the promises you want but when you’re still sending 100,000 people across the southern border, actions speak louder than words,” Mulvaney said. “We want to work with the Northern Triangle countries but we need their assistance.”

Democrats were scathing about the planned cuts.

“Most of this aid is intended to address the causes of migration - reduce poverty, violence, gangs, improve rule of law, and reform justice systems,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “It is shooting ourselves in the foot to cut off the assistance.”

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay and Lesley Wroughton; Writing By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Peter Cooney

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