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President Trump says he will unfreeze security aid to Central American countries

A woman holds a sign that says “no human is illegal” outside the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City during the World Day for Migrants and Refugees on Sept. 29. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump has agreed to release $143 million in foreign aid to Central America, money the president froze earlier this year to put pressure on the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador during a migration surge at the U.S. southern border.

In a tweet Wednesday, Trump praised the three governments for signing new accords with the United States that will potentially allow the Department of Homeland Security to send asylum seekers from the U.S. border back to Central America. Since striking the deals, Trump has gone from blasting those countries and threatening them with tariffs to heaping praise on their efforts.

“Guatemala, Honduras & El Salvador have all signed historic Asylum Cooperation Agreements and are working to end the scourge of human smuggling,” the president wrote. “To further accelerate this progress, the U.S. will shortly be approving targeted assistance in the areas of law enforcement & security.”

The president did not specify how much money he had authorized, but a person familiar with the decision said the amount for the three nations totals $143 million. The decision does not restore all of the money Trump suspended, some of which has been diverted to support the Venezuelan opposition.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that “targeted aid” would resume Wednesday as a result of “great progress” regarding migration trends from Central America: “Earlier this year the U.S. temporarily suspended aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, & Honduras until they took sufficient action to reduce the number of migrants coming to our border.”

Kevin McAleenan, the acting DHS secretary, last week submitted a proposal to Trump that would restore the suspended funds, according to a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to discuss the decision. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and other top White House advisers supported McAleenan’s proposal, the official said.

McAleenan is traveling to El Salvador on Wednesday and plans to announce the restoration of the aid on Thursday, less than a week after telling Trump he wants to step down.

Trump, who announced McAleenan’s exit on Friday in a tweet, said he plans to name a new acting homeland security secretary this week. McAleenan is expected to remain on the job until the end of the month.

McAleenan, who has long argued that reducing security aid to Central America risks accelerating emigration, has made seven trips to Central America during the past six months to negotiate the asylum agreements with top security officials and the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Critics of the deals say it is not possible for Central American nations that are already struggling with insecurity and corruption to quickly set up asylum systems capable of protecting vulnerable groups.

Polls in those countries indicate little public support for a deal that would require their governments to resettle foreigners seeking refuge. McAleenan tried to sweeten the Trump administration’s offer by promising additional economic and development benefits.

As part of the accords, both Guatemala and Honduras have received U.S. commitments to increase the allocation of employment visas. And the Trump administration has promised at least $47 million to expand Guatemala’s asylum program.

“These countries have stepped up in response to the president, and their opportunities will increase if they agree to make countering irregular migration a priority,” the U.S. official said.

None of the three agreements has been implemented to date, and McAleenan’s imminent departure has raised some doubts about how fast the accords will take effect.

In March, as the number of Central American migrants crossing the border jumped to the highest level in more than a decade, Trump lashed out at the region’s governments, announcing the suspension of more than $500 million in development assistance.

Some of those funds have since been restored. The funding the president agreed to release includes money for counternarcotics operations, military aid, assistance with the resettlement of deportees and programs to prevent young people from joining gangs, the U.S. official said.

McAleenan has sought to channel tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid to the United Nations to enlist its help building up Central American asylum programs that would enable those nations to take in returnees from the United States. He has argued that Central Americans should seek protection close to home instead of traveling to the U.S. border, a journey that typically requires payments to criminal groups.