(Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday restored economic aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that had been cut off after the Trump administration complained the three Central American countries had done too little to halt a surge in migration.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that some “targeted assistance” would resume as they praised governments of the three countries for reaching immigration agreements with the United States.
“Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador have all signed historic Asylum Cooperation Agreements and are working to end the scourge of human smuggling. To further accelerate this progress, the U.S. will shortly be approving targeted assistance in the areas of law enforcement & security,” Trump said on Twitter.
The three countries from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America have sent record numbers of migrants toward the United States in recent years, fueling Trump’s rhetoric as part of his “zero tolerance” anti-immigration policy.
Trump campaigned on a promise to reduce illegal immigration in 2016 and has already made the issue part of his 2020 re-election bid.
Pompeo said in a statement that he had cut off the aid earlier this year on Trump’s direction “until the governments of these countries took sufficient action to reduce the overwhelming number of migrants coming to the U.S. border.”
Neither Trump nor Pompeo said how much of the hundreds of millions of dollars of suspended aid would be released. The Washington Post, citing an unnamed person familiar with the decision, reported it amounted to $143 million.
The United States used the aid suspension as leverage over the three impoverished countries that are still feeling the effects of the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars in region in the 1980s.
In response, they all reached at least partial agreements with the United States that could help Trump implement a new rule that would deny asylum to migrants and return them to Central America.
The Trump rule requires asylum-seekers to first seek safe haven in a third country they pass through on the way to the United States. The administration contends the majority of asylum-seekers are really economic migrants who will stay home if their only option is to seek asylum somewhere else.
Immigrant aid organizations have sued to stop the rule, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed it to remain in effect pending trial.
Pompeo said the resumed aid would help the three countries “build stronger local asylum systems” among other uses.
Reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Bill Berkrot