Cutting aid to Central America misguided, impulsive, and supremely counter-productive

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Frustrated by the continuing arrivals of Central American migrants at the Southern border, President TrumpDonald John TrumpAlaska Republican Party cancels 2020 primary Ukrainian official denies Trump pressured president Trump goes after New York Times, Washington Post: 'They have gone totally CRAZY!!!!' MORE announced on Friday that he will be cutting U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. “No money goes there anymore,” Trump declared, because those countries “haven’t done a thing for us.” The State Department will be carrying out Trump’s directive to end foreign assistance programs in the Northern Triangle countries.

Given Trump’s aim of stemming the migration flows that begin in Central America, this policy is supremely counter-productive. It is legally questionable and reflects the diplomatic chaos of the current administration. Most importantly, it will not stop migrants from fleeing their home countries; if anything, cutting off aid to Central America will likely lead to more caravans and more asylum-seekers.

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According to a study by the Congressional Research Service, over the last two years, about $1.3 billion has been allocated by Congress to Central America, with most of these funds going to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. If that amount seems large, consider that the amount of money the U.S. has specifically allocated for Central America and Mexico amounted to only two percent of the entire Fiscal Year 2017 International Affairs Budget.

The first problem with Trump’s stopping such aid is that he might not have the power to do so. A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. will be ending assistance programs for Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018, adding, “We will be engaging Congress as part of this process.”

That phrase is key, because Trump’s aid cuts could well amount to a potentially unconstitutional power grab. These funds have already been appropriated by Congress, and the president may not unilaterally redirect where they are going. The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, in fact, was designed to reassert the idea that Congress — not the Chief Executive — has authority over the budget. If Trump is somehow hoping that our divided Congress will give him approval to slash Central American aid, he is mistaken. Democrats have already denounced this plan, and there is no way they would allow it to go unchallenged on their watch.

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Trump’s decision to end Central American aid is also misguided because it is so impulsive. Last Tuesday, National Security Advisor John Bolton met with the president of Honduras at the White House to discuss increased cooperation between the two countries. On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenKirstjen Nielsen drops out of Atlantic Media event after liberal backlash Pence taps former DHS spokeswoman as his new press secretary DHS officials called lawmaker visit to migrant detention facility a 'Hill stunt' MORE announced a “historic regional compact” with Central American nations to stem migration and confront the U.S. border crisis. Now Trump intends to undercut these diplomatic efforts by punishing Central America for his administration’s immigration policy failures. This sends the message to our allies in Latin America and around the world that our foreign policy can change at the president’s whim.

The worst part of Trump’s cutting aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is that it will have devastating, unintended consequences. These countries are among the world’s most dangerous nations, with high poverty rates and endemic violence. U.S. aid to these nations funds initiatives that help combat trafficking and drug cartels, fight poverty and hunger, and create opportunities in the private sector. The U.S. spends about $620 million a year in the three countries, for example, on gang prevention programs and other efforts to bolster civil society. Ending these programs will only make survival more difficult for Central Americans, which will lead to more people fleeing for their lives. That will mean more deadly treks North, more suffering, and more unaccompanied children arriving in the U.S.

Then again, Trump has demonstrated how little he cares about Central Americans fleeing instability. At a recent rally in Michigan, he mocked asylum-seekers, saying they were trying to scam their way into the country. “It’s a big, fat con job,” he said.

Sadly, there is indeed a humanitarian crisis at our Southern border. While illegal immigration overall has been trending downward since the year 2000, the subset of Central Americans arriving at the border has recently hit record levels. In February, over 76,000 migrants were taken into custody after entering the country illegally or being stopped at checkpoints.

The only way this problem can be solved is by addressing its root causes, and that means cooperation and investment in migrants’ countries of origin. In contrast, cutting financial assistance to the region will give us less — not more — control over migration flows. And the U.S. does not give money to Central America as an act of charity; we do so because these funds ultimately serve American interests. Yet Trump refuses to see that we need allies, not enemies, in Latin America.

Cutting aid to Central America is as short-sighted as it is inhumane. This move will only endanger lives, erode our reputation on the world stage, and exacerbate the migrant crisis at the border.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.