US State Department ignores congressional request for Central America aid update

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo by: Poland MFA / CC BY-NC

WASHINGTON — The State Department missed a deadline to provide Congress with requested information about Trump administration cuts to U.S. foreign assistance to Central America last year.

The department did not respond to a Dec. 4  letter from House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel and Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade Subcommittee Chair Albio Sires by the stated Dec. 18 deadline. They requested information detailing when all foreign assistance to the “Northern Triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador would be resumed and under what conditions. In March 2019, the administration eliminated $405 million of fiscal year 2018 funds.

The congressmen requested more information about measures the Trump administration took last March to suspend aid to the Northern Triangle to incentivize the countries to stop their citizens from migrating north to the U.S. The three countries suffer from widespread violence, gang activity, weak institutions, and stunted economic activity.

Bipartisan members of Congress in both chambers opposed the cuts, saying it was not logical for the U.S. to stop programs that were meant to improve people’s lives so they could remain in their home countries.

“We believe that the Trump administration’s counterproductive decision to cut off U.S. assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has damaged our standing in the Americas while also preventing us from addressing the root causes of child and family migration,” Engel and Sires wrote in the letter to the State Department. “We are extremely disappointed that $48 million in FY 2018 USAID funding remains frozen with no clear metrics in place for its future release.”

The congressmen called on the State Department to restore that impacted funding, as well as $527.6 million in FY19 assistance. The administration has already restored $89.3 million in FY17 money, plus $53.7 million for future years. According to the congressmen, that $143 million was primarily for law enforcement activity or related to third-party asylum agreements reached between the U.S. and El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala last year.

Engel and Sires called those agreements, which allow the Trump administration to send Central Americans back to the region to request asylum there instead of in the U.S., “draconian.” They wanted to know if resumption of funds was contingent on the implementation of the agreements by the three countries and if so what metrics were being used to determine successful implementation.

The congressmen requested information from Pompeo to explain why funds affiliated with the safe third country agreements and law enforcement activity were resumed while those from the Economic Support Fund and other development assistance were not. The letter also requested a copy of a plan referenced in a State Department Inspector General report from November, which specified “priority areas of cooperation from Northern Triangle government in order to reinstate assistance.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the status of its reply to the congressional letter by press time. After this article was published, the department confirmed it had sent a response. A House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade Subcommittee staffer confirmed that response was received Thursday afternoon. This is a developing story.

Update, January 10, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect responses received after this article was published.

About the author

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    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.