Lawmakers fear Trump effect on Latin America

Lawmakers fear Trump effect on Latin America
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Lawmakers are eyeing Latin America with concern, fearful that President Trump's foreign policies could destabilize young democracies and key security allies in the region.

At issue are the so-called Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where democracy is still taking a foothold. Governments there cope with poverty and high levels of violence that have sent scores of migrants to the U.S.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) said the political stability of those countries was precarious and one of the biggest threats to U.S. security.

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"The [drug] cartels are noticing that the U.S. is unstable and they are looking to take advantage of the situation that unfortunately the Senate and Congress can't avoid," said Torres. "It's our president that's creating this instability around the world."

Torres, who was born in Guatemala and sits in the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said U.S. depends on countries south of the border for security and stability, noting the large number of migrants.

"If we do not address the root causes of migration, we will continue to have thousands of children, or adults, at our southern border," she said.

Trump's relations with Mexico have been in the spotlight in the first two weeks of his administration, but many say Mexico is just one part of their larger concerns about the region.

Mexico is relatively stable politically and economically, they note. In fiscal 2014 and 2016, the Department of Homeland Security reported that fewer than 50 percent of those apprehended attempting to illegally cross the U.S. border were Mexicans.

"Yes, there is a rule of law issue in parts of Mexico," said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), but he added that Mexico has moved toward becoming a stable democracy faster than other countries in the region.

"You have to remember there has been a peaceful transfer of power over multiple political parties," he said. "That’s the kind of political evolution we haven’t seen in other countries."

The Northern Triangle countries don't have that same history.

The future of the Northern Triangle countries could also depend on the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico, which Trump has threatened to upend with a border wall and by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The United States, Mexico, and Costa Rica, have together invested in helping the Northern Triangle, partly through a program in which they agree to take on a certain number of refugees.

Other countries have pitched in with foreign aid. Chile, for example, set up a training program for the Honduran police and military.

"All of these efforts could be compromised," Torres said, under Trump.

The effect on migration is a top concern with Trump halting refugee admissions for 120 days and ordering agencies to begin working toward building a border wall.

"We've overlooked that 'refugee' means everybody, not just people from the countries that he banned," said Torres.

Violence in the Northern Triangle, tied to weak governance and its strategic location for the drug trade, has led to almost 10 percent of the region's population leaving, according to a report by the Council for Foreign Relations.

That mass migration, a safety valve for Central American countries, has put extra pressure on Mexico to patrol its own southern border more closely. 

In 2015, Mexico intensified its border enforcement actions at the behest of the United States, increasing its apprehensions by 70 percent over the previous year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

That cooperation could be endangered if U.S.-Mexico relations worsen.

"I think it's very dangerous that you have a president that starts calling allied countries 'enemies' when they have been putting life, sweat, blood, money into fighting narcoterrorism as well as being allies of ours in terms of stopping terrorists," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

Trump's moves to build a border wall, though, could be the most damaging to U.S-Mexico relations and the countries joint efforts to help Latin American neighbors, many worry.

Congressional Democrats are leading the charge to oppose Trump's policies toward Latin America, but some Republicans, like Hurd, have been vocal in their dissent.

Hurd, who represents a border district in Texas, has opposed the wall.

Adding to the worries of those with an eye on the region, public opinion in Latin America has seen a rise in anti-American sentiment that had mostly disappeared over the last 25 years.

That could make it even more politically difficult for the region's governments to openly cooperate with the U.S.

"My point is that this is a shared problem between the U.S. and Mexico, and we need to work together to solve the problem," said Hurd.

"People don’t often recognize the role Mexico plays in that fight."