New House bill would prevent reprogramming of Central America funds

Coming from Central America, people climb on a train known as "The Beast", continuing their journey towards the United States, in Ixtepec, Mexico. Photo by: REUTERS / Jose de Jesus Cortes

WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul on Thursday introduced legislation that authorizes $577 million in foreign assistance to Central America to address the root causes of migration and prohibits those funds from being reprogrammed, rescinded, or transferred.

The bill, the United State-Northern Triangle Enhancement Engagement Act, comes six weeks after President Donald Trump announced that he was cutting off aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras because citizens of those countries are trying to cross the U.S. border. Approximately $500 million in fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2017 funds are impacted by the president’s directive, and Congress has little ability to stop the move because of the way those appropriations bills were worded.

“This is a serious bipartisan effort and we hope that it will move forward.”

— Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy, Catholic Relief Services

The legislation specifies that “not less than” $490 million will be made available for programs in the Northern Triangle, while “not less than” $10 million are to be given to the Inter-American Foundation to address the root causes of migration.

“The best way for the United States to address the challenges facing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is by investing in a safer and more prosperous Central America and helping to create more opportunities for those who live there,” Engel said in a statement. “This legislation demonstrates Congress’s continued commitment to the people of Central America.”

Engel and McCaul are the chairmen and ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and both have been outspoken about the aid cutoff. They were visiting USAID programs in El Salvador on a bipartisan congressional delegation trip when they learned the president had decided to stop U.S. assistance to the Northern Triangle, and both have said that cutting off funds that are targeted at addressing the root causes of migration is counterproductive.

“In order to address this crisis effectively, we must look to the conditions on the ground. This bill outlines a clear and consistent strategy to provide U.S. assistance in four key areas: economic development; anti-corruption; democracy and governance; and security,” McCaul said in a statement. “It also establishes metrics to ensure that our aid effectively addresses illegal migration and demonstrates that these countries are doing their part to stem the flow.”

The bill requires the State Department, USAID, and other relevant federal agencies to produce a publicly available report on drivers of migration and how U.S. assistance is addressing them within 90 days of its passage. This report is to contain data on topics such as criminal activity, recruitment and reporting; gender-based violence; security force abuse; corruption; governance capacity; government capacity to support economic growth, improving health outcomes and addressing the causes of poverty; and the activity of China and Russia in the region.

Under the bill, the secretary of state must prioritize economic development by supporting market-based solutions, addressing underlying causes of poverty and inequality, and supporting community resilience. The bill also states that repatriation mechanisms in the three countries should be strengthened for adults and children. Within 90 days, the secretary must coordinate with other relevant agencies to develop a five-year strategy “to support inclusive economic growth,” and progress updates must be given to relevant congressional committees every year.

The bill also requires a five-year strategy to target government corruption that would strengthen the judicial sector, provide technical assistance to identify financial crimes, and encourage further cooperation from relevant U.S. agencies. Provisions to strengthen democratic institutions require the secretary of state to provide support at the local and national level, and develop the capacity of civil society.

To receive the money appropriated in the bill, Northern Triangle governments have to prove they are meeting an intensive set of 14 criteria. These include informing citizens of the dangers of migrating to the U.S; combatting human trafficking, drug smuggling, and corruption; reforming public institutions and tax policies; ending the role of the military in domestic policing; and supporting programs to end poverty.

Bill O’Keefe, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services, said the bill is a constructive step in the process to ensure aid continues to flow to Central America. CRS is one of the few NGOs that has current programming in all three Northern Triangle countries.

“We applaud any serious bipartisan effort to address the root causes of migration, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable people who always suffer on the long journey and who in the end want to stay where they are,” O’Keefe said.

“It’s great to see both McCaul and Engel step up like this, frankly, and I think we need constructive leadership to try to solve these problems. We’ve had a lot of bluster out there and not a lot of progress and so this is a serious bipartisan effort and we hope that it will move forward.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.