Top Republican questions Trump's plan to cut Central American aid

State Department said on Saturday it was cutting off aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

    A migrant wears the Honduras flag as he walks along the side of a highway as part of a caravan travelling to the US [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]
    A migrant wears the Honduras flag as he walks along the side of a highway as part of a caravan travelling to the US [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

    A top Republican on the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee said on Monday that US President Donald Trump's plan to cut aid to three Central American countries - HondurasGuatemala and El Salvador - would make the situation there worse, not better.

    Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has tried to persuade Trump to address the problem by fostering economic development in Central America. But the State Department said on Saturday it was carrying out Trump's directive to end aid programmes to the three Central American nations, known as the Northern Triangle, after Trump blasted them for sending migrants to the United States.

    "If we cut all this funding, and a lot of it, quite honestly, is seriously law enforcement that we're doing down there ... I think it's going to make things tragically worse, not better," Representative Michael McCaul said in a presentation at the Wilson Center think-tank in Washington, DC. 

    Democrats also criticised Trump's planned move over the weekend, calling it "short-sighted and flawed". 

    Congressional aides have noted that, since the US constitution says Congress, not the president, sets spending policy, Trump cannot overrule spending bills passed by Congress, which he signed into law, without politicians' approval.

    To obtain that approval, the administration would have to send Congress a formal notification explaining its plans for reusing the aid money and seeking politicians' approval.

    Detentions at the US border have surged in recent months, angering Trump and putting pressure on Lopez Obrador to find a solution that will prevent a shutdown of the frontier to the market for 80 percent of Mexico's exports. 

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    Lopez Obrador said Mexico will help to regulate the flow of Central American migrants passing through its territory to the US, adding that he would not have a confrontation with the US.

    "I prefer love and peace," Lopez Obrador told reporters at his regular morning news conference on Monday.

    Border deployment

    On Monday, the Trump administration said it would speed up the deployment of hundreds of officers on the southern border of the US and will dramatically expand a policy of returning migrants seeking asylum to Mexico, a policy that has come under fire by rights groups. 

    The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency first announced the redeployment of 750 officers to process a surge of migrant families entering the US last week.

    In a written statement, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said she had ordered CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan to undertake "emergency surge operations" and immediately speed up the reassignment.

    CBP also has the authority to raise the number of redeployed personnel past 750 and will notify Nielsen if they plan to reassign more than 2,000 officers.

    The agency will also "immediately expand" a controversial policy to return Central American migrants to Mexico as they wait for their asylum claims to be heard by "hundreds of additional migrants per day above current rates", Nielsen said.

    That would be a dramatic expansion of the policy, dubbed the Migrant Protection Protocols, put in place in January. 

    As of March 26, approximately 370 migrants had been returned to Mexico, a Mexican official told Reuters last week.

    Asked about the numbers, a DHS spokeswoman declined to confirm them and said the policy "is still in the early stages of implementation". 

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    The policy is aimed at curbing the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the US. Trump administration officials say a system that allows asylum seekers to remain in the country for years while waiting for their cases to move through a back-logged immigration court system encourages undocumented immigration.

    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups sued the Trump administration over the policy, claiming it violates US law.

    But following a March 22 hearing on whether the programme should be halted, US District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco ordered both sides to submit further briefing on the question of whether or not the California court has jurisdiction to preside over the case, likely prolonging any decision on the policy.

    Migrant needs 'not being attended to'

    Asked if it was time to put pressure on the Central American countries to do more to tackle the problem, Mexico's Lopez Obrador said the causes of migration were "not being attended to" and that people needed to be offered more opportunities there.

    "Obviously, we have to help because Central American migrants pass through our territory and we have to bring order to this migration, make sure it's legal," Lopez Obrador said. "That's what we're doing. But serenely, calmly, without a commotion and with great prudence and responsibility."

    CBP projections are for over 90,000 apprehensions at the border during March, according to data provided to the Mexican government - a more than 140 percent increase from March 2018, and a seven-fold jump from 2017. 

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    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US was working with the Central American governments and Mexico to "solve this problem at the border", and pointed to the numbers when asked why Trump had toughened his stance.

    "Just look at the math," Pompeo told reporters outside the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. "How many folks are coming across."

    SOURCE: News agencies