World / Social Issues

Trump vows to cut Central America aid as U.S.-bound migrant caravan rolls on


President Donald Trump said Monday the United States will start cutting aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as a caravan of thousands of mostly Honduran migrants rolled on regardless toward the U.S. border.

The United Nations said more than 7,000 people were now heading toward the U.S., as more migrants joined the original group, including some Central Americans who were already in Mexico.

Trump meanwhile kept up his almost-daily Twitter attacks on the approaching caravan, calling it a national emergency and saying he had alerted the U.S. border patrol and the military.

“We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid” that the United States provides to the three Central American countries,” said the president — who has seized upon the crisis in the run-up to U.S. midterm elections, reviving the immigrant-bashing rhetoric that helped get him elected in 2016.

It was unclear whether the president’s tweets had any policy implications. U.S. aid to Honduras has already been on the decline. It went from $209.2 billion in 2016 to $181.7 billion last year, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, said the Pentagon had received no new orders to provide troops for border security. And a State Department official said the agency as of Monday had not been given any instructions on eliminating or reducing aid to Central American countries.

Mexican authorities had managed to block the migrants on the Mexico-Guatemala border after they burst through a series of barriers on the Guatemalan side on Friday. But many later crossed the river below in makeshift rafts before marching north.

The caravan resumed its journey Monday in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, setting out from Tapachula, near the border, for the town of Huixtla, around 40 kilometers (25 miles) away.

Many of the migrants had spent the night on the town square or the street, wary of the shelters set up by charities and the government. Moving in a massive ebb and flow, they set out on foot or hitched rides with passing cars and trucks.

“Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” Trump wrote in a tweet.

“I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy (sic). Must change laws!”

Trump for months has sought to use foreign aid as a cudgel more broadly, threatening to withhold humanitarian and other aid from “enemies of America” and using it to pressure foreign governments to bend to his will.

“Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S. We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them,” Trump tweeted early on Monday.

He added later at the White House: “We have been giving so much money to so many different countries for so long that it’s not fair and it’s not good. And then when we ask them to keep their people in their country, they’re unable to do it.”

Last April, Defense Secretary James Mattis authorized up to 4,000 members of the National Guard to help the Department of Homeland Security with southern border security, and approximately 2,100 were sent under the control of border state governors. That number had not changed, spokesman Davis said.

The Pentagon also said it was going ahead with plans to include Honduras among the South American nations that will be visited this fall by the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship that Mattis has dispatched to help relieve stress on medical care systems as a result of refugee flows from Venezuela. The Comfort began treating patients in Ecuador on Monday and is scheduled to make stops in Peru, Colombia and Honduras, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning.

“The deployment reflects the United States’ enduring promise of friendship, partnership and solidarity with the Americas,” Manning said.

Asked what the administration was doing to operationalize the president’s tweet, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday evening that “we’re continuing to look at all options on the table.”

“The president wants to make sure we’re doing everything we can to secure and protect our borders and that’s exactly what he’s been talking about,” she said.

It is Congress, not the president, that appropriates aid money. The White House would have to notify Congress if it wanted to cut or reallocate aid, which could delay or complicate the process.

Activists say the migrant’s journey of at least 3,000 km (1,800 miles) through Mexico to the U.S. border could take a month.

“We’re a little afraid the police could detain us. But if they deport us, we’ll just try again,” said Noemi Bobadilla, 39, a cleaner from San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

She had already been walking for 13 days, with a friend and her baby.

Rights activists accused Mexico of mistreating the migrants.

Several groups accused the Mexican government in a statement of “arbitrary detentions” and “grave human rights violations” for detaining migrants who tried to enter the country legally and file asylum claims.

Other activists accused Trump of using the caravan to score political points.

“Trump isn’t afraid of the caravan, Trump is using the caravan to win Congress,” said Irineo Mujica, an activist who helped organize another caravan that also infuriated Trump in April.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, denounced the “apparent political motivation of some organizers of the caravan.”

About a thousand migrants, including women and children, were still stranded on a border bridge hoping to enter Mexico legally via Guatemala.

Mexican authorities insisted those on the bridge would have to file asylum claims one at a time in order to enter the country.

A separate group of about 1,000 Hondurans started their own march across Guatemala, headed for Mexico and then the United States. The group of men, women and children gathered in Esquipulas before setting out on foot.

The caravan left San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras more than a week ago.

It had comprised between 3,000 and 5,000 people at various times as it moved through Guatemala, according to various sources.

The International Organization for Migration now estimates it comprises just under 7,250 people, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

Around 900 migrants — tired of waiting on the bridge — resorted to crossing the Suchiate River below on makeshift rafts, and police did not intervene as they clambered up the muddy riverbank on the Mexican side on Saturday.

Many of the migrants are fleeing poverty and insecurity in Honduras, where powerful street gangs rule their turf with brutal violence.

With a homicide rate of 43 per 100,000 citizens, Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, according to a Honduran university study.