President Donald Trump has gone after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, threatening to close the border if Lopez Obrador didn’t stop the movement of Central Americans north. He called out Central America’s leaders as well, announcing an end to hundreds of millions in aid for their supposed recalcitrance.
Yet Trump’s bullying tactics will not lower the number of women, children and men leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for the United States. If anything, the aid pullback will undermine the tenuous ability of these nations to mitigate these migratory flows.
To be sure, Trump’s tough stance is diametrically opposed to that of Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on protecting rather than incarcerating migrants, promising visas instead of deportation orders. His first bilateral step as president-elect, laid out in a long love letter to President Trump, was an ambitious $30 billion plan for Central America to take on the root causes of the regional exodus.
Yet Lopez Obrador quickly came around to the more punitive U.S. take. While his government has offered some 12,000 humanitarian visas, it has also deported just under 20,000 migrants in the first two months of 2019, continuing the practices of his predecessor Enrique Pena Nieto. And he is now amassing police to stop the next wave of caravans heading north. Even so, in February alone, 76,000 migrants were apprehended at the U.S. southern border through Mexico.
The biggest weakness lies in governmental institutions. Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM) is, to be diplomatic, not known for professionalism. An internal investigation revealed it to be riddled with corruption, with agents prone to extort or abuse their migrant charges.
The Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance (COMAR), which handles asylum cases, is overwhelmed, unable to process even a quarter of the 30,000 requests it received last year, to say nothing of the 12,000 more applications it has already received in 2019 (on track to top 50,000 by year end). Yet rather than build up the capacity of these two bureaucracies, the government has cut their budgets by 20 percent.
The government’s broader disorganization and dysfunction compound this ineffectiveness. When Lopez Obrador acquiesced to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, which seeks to park Central Americans across the border until their applications for asylum are adjudicated, the new INM head told the media he hadn’t been consulted or even informed beforehand. A prominent migration scholar, he then enumerated the plan’s deep flaws: U.S. officials would have to conduct interviews on Mexican soil, hundreds of thousands of Central Americans would wait for months or even years along the border, and if and when the U.S. rejected their asylum claims, they would enter legal limbo.
Central America’s capacity to stop the human tide is even more limited. With tax intakes often less than remittances, these governments are both dependent and unaccountable, feeding a vicious cycle of poverty, violence and corruption that leads more to leave.
Stopping aid won’t change their behavior, as much of the money Trump is pulling doesn’t go to governments. Instead it funds independent NGOs that keep kids in school and provide alternatives to the street in the afternoons, set up local health clinics, give microcredit loans, and prop up subsistence farmers. Such initiatives can shift the individual, family and community calculus between staying and going.
Trump may holler and even carry out his threat to shut the border, from which he backed off Thursday, and end Central American aid. Yet the reality is that Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras can do little to curb migration without this support.
If Trump truly wanted to stanch these flows, he’d invest a big part of the more than $20 billion spent on border enforcement back where these kids and families come from. He’d get behind the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, and its counterpart Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, successful experiments in building democratic institutions to replace the corrupt ecosystem that drives citizens north.
But perhaps he has another motive: If Trump instead wanted to exacerbate the crisis at the U.S. southern border, this would be the way to do it.
Shannon O’Neil is a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.