WASHINGTON, April 9 (Reuters) - The United States is considering a conditional cash transfer program to help address economic woes that lead migrants from certain Central American countries to trek north, as well as sending COVID-19 vaccines to those countries, a senior White House official told Reuters on Friday.
The potential program would be targeted at people in the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Roberta Jacobson, the White House's southern border coordinator, told Reuters in an interview, without saying who exactly would receive cash.
Roughly 168,000 people were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the highest monthly tally since March 2001 and part of steadily increasing arrivals in recent months.
"We're looking at all of the productive options to address both the economic reasons people may be migrating, as well as the protection and security reasons," Jacobson said.
She did not provide a detailed explanation of how a cash transfer program would work.
"The one thing I can promise you is the U.S. government isn't going to be handing out money or checks to people," Jacobson said.
Jacobson said no decision has been made regarding whether to prioritize sending vaccines to the Northern Triangle countries, but said that President Joe Biden's administration would consider how vaccines could help the countries' ailing economies. She said the vaccine issue remains separate from immigration-related discussions with the nations.
Jacobson will leave the White House at the end of April, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Friday, saying she had committed to the role for the first 100 days of the new administration.
Biden in late March tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America to address the number of migrants heading north.
Central American countries have faced some of the longest waits in the Americas to get their first vaccines. Frustrated by the time it has taken, some regional governments have begun turning to China and Russia for help, with increasing success.
Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, has called for $4 billion in development aid to Central America over four years to address underlying causes of migration. On Friday, the White House requested $861 million from Congress for that effort in Biden's first annual budget proposal. That would be a sharp increase from the roughly $500 million in aid this year.
Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized the idea of cash transfers.
"It’s insulting to the millions of Americans who are out of work or facing despair in our country," he said in a statement Friday evening.
A spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers foreign aid, told Reuters in a statement that it is already using cash transfers in programs "to help people meet their basic needs" in the wake of severe hurricanes in Central America in late 2020. USAID is considering expanding the efforts going forward, the spokesman said.
The United States in the past has used the USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives to fund work-for-cash programs in post-conflict nations such as Colombia. Such programs can include labor-intensive rural road-building projects.
Among the options for cash transfers would be to channel funds to individuals through international or local non-governmental organizations that would vet them, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Mexico has proposed similar cash transfer programs as an option during recent meetings with U.S. envoys in Mexico City, a senior Mexican official said. The Mexican government has piloted such projects on a limited scale in Central America, modeled on cash grants it gives to the young unemployed and small farmers, a key pillar of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's domestic welfare programs.
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