Biden wants $1 billion for Central America

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Vice President Biden this week is urging Congress to approve $1 billion in new aid to Central America in an effort to prevent a rerun of the migrant wave that hit the southern border last summer.

In an op-ed in The Hill, Biden said the new funding is vital for helping the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fight the crime, corruption and poverty the White House says prompted tens of thousands of migrants — a huge number of them unaccompanied children — to seek asylum in the United States in 2014.

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“The President and I are determined to address conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and help these countries on their path to economic prosperity,” Biden wrote. The additional funding, he said, will “help Central America’s leaders make the difficult reforms and investments required to put the region on a more stable and sustainable path.”

The vice president, who was in Guatemala last week meeting with Central American leaders, says the money would focus on three goals: bolstering security to stem violence; weeding out corruption and improving government institutions, including criminal justice systems; and providing U.S. technical assistance for the purpose of attracting international investment.

While he emphasized that Central American leaders must take the reins in the effort to stabilize the region, Biden also stressed the importance of Washington's role in bringing those changes about. 

“Our own government needs to move quickly to show results and hold ourselves accountable, as well. That means rigorously evaluating our programs to build on what works and eliminate what doesn’t deliver the impact we need,” he said. “The process is already underway, and we look forward to working closely with Congress to craft the most effective assistance package.”

The administration faces a tough sell on Capitol Hill, as even some Democrats are already voicing skepticism that the extra funds will be effective.

"We've spent billions of dollars there over two decades," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, told Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the Los Angeles Times. "And we've seen conditions get worse in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador."
 
More than 60,000 unaccompanied children crossed the southern border in the first half of last year, most of them into Texas's Rio Grande Valley, marking a huge increase in historical numbers. The flood quickly swamped border authorities, who scrambled for ways to detain, process and, in many cases, deport the kids back to their homes.

The crisis sparked a decidedly partisan fight on Capitol Hill over both the cause of, and the appropriate response to, the migrant surge. 

Republicans argued that President Obama's 2012 initiative, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, had spurred the kids to the border, with hopes of attaining the quasi-legal status provided to those eligible for the program. In August, House Republicans passed a $694 million border package to increase funding for immigration judges, deploy National Guard troops at the border and scale back a 2008 human trafficking law that would allow for quicker deportations of the new arrivals.

Democrats were quick to note that none of the new migrants were eligible for DACA, which is available only to those who have lived in the United States continuously since 2007. They argued that the wave was the result of violence and poverty exacerbated by Central American drug cartels. In response, Senate Democrats introduced their own bill providing new funding to border authorities without scaling back the 2008 human trafficking law.

Neither bill reached Obama's desk, and the administration instead shifted hundreds of millions of dollars from other federal programs to address the crisis.

In February, as part of his 2016 budget proposal, Obama proposed $1 billion for State Department efforts to improve the economies of Central American nations in hopes of preventing another migrant wave. The figure is roughly three times what the U.S. has recently spent in the region, but Biden argues the new spending will pay dividends for the U.S. 

“The cost of investing now in a Central America where young people can thrive in their own communities pales in comparison to the costs of another generation of violence, poverty, desperation, and emigration,” Biden wrote.  

“We seek Congress’s help to make it so.”