By all indications, President Trump is in the process of cutting off large infusions of aid to the three “Northern Triangle” countries. Their offense? Not doing enough to mitigate the catastrophic failures of his own immigration agenda.
We already know Trump is extraordinarily sensitive to spikes in people crossing our southern border, which he views as a metric by which his presidency will be judged. Last spring, such a rise caused him to erupt in a fury at his homeland security secretary.
Now that we’re seeing another big spike in border-crossings, one largely driven by asylum-seeking families, Trump is retaliating by cutting off aid to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Trump wants them to do more to prevent people from migrating north into Mexico en route to the United States.
The task of defending this action has fallen largely to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. In so doing, however, Mulvaney has actually demonstrated just how glaring Trump’s failures on his signature issue have really been.
This exchange between Mulvaney and CNN’s Jake Tapper is highly instructive:
TAPPER: Your own border experts in your own administration say that investing in those countries is working. For instance, in El Salvador, USAID money has gone to El Salvador. The homicide rate has gone down and migration from El Salvador has gone down as well.
Isn’t this also self-defeating? Taking away aid from those countries ultimately will make the migration crisis worse.
MULVANEY: Look, there’s a lot of good ways to help solve this problem. ... Honduras could do more. Nicaragua could do more. El Salvador could do more. And if we’re going to give these countries hundreds of millions of dollars, we would like them to do more. ...
We could prevent a lot of what’s happening on the southern border by preventing people from moving into Mexico in the first place. And that’s what...
TAPPER: Right, but that’s the USAID money does, is it makes those countries more stable. This is not according to me. This is according to experts in your own administration.
MULVANEY: Okay, career staffers, but let’s talk about — let’s talk about that for a second.
If it’s working so well, why are the people still coming? ... I think at least now people are starting to realize that we were not exaggerating a couple months ago, when we had this nationwide debate about the wall.
First, Mulvaney’s sneer that only “career staffers” are claiming aid helps stabilize those countries is absurdly dismissive. After all, this includes Trump’s own Customs and Border Protection commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, who has repeatedly said this.
In December, McAleenan told ABC News that a then-new State Department plan to increase aid to those countries is a “tremendous step forward,” because investments in improving both the security and economic conditions there would improve migrants’ “opportunities to stay at home.”
More recently, in March, McAleenan told reporters: “We need to continue to support the governments in Central America to improve economic opportunities to address poverty and hunger and to improve governance and security.”
In saying these things, Trump’s own border chief is stating what is now widely understood: These migration surges are largely driven by terrible civil conditions at home. Thus, what is called for above all is a regional strategy designed to discourage them in the first place. People who have worked on this problem in multiple administrations agree with this.
“Resources from the United States are vital if we’re going to create the conditions that allow people to stay,” Cecilia Muñoz, who oversaw the Obama administration’s responses to these surges beginning in 2014, told me. “Cutting off resources that are allowing these countries to make progress — to say that this is cutting off our nose to spite our face doesn’t even begin to cover it. More people are likely to do the desperate thing, which is migrate.”
Mulvaney’s responses in this regard are startlingly weak. He claims the cutoff is designed to get countries to do more to keep people from migrating. But as one former U.S. ambassador to Honduras notes, the use of this aid as leverage is misguided, since much doesn’t go directly to governments but rather is administered by nonprofit groups via U.S. programs. And those governments can’t block people from migrating.
But that aside, Mulvaney’s claim still skirts the core issue, which is that cutting off aid will set back to an untold degree efforts to discourage migrations by addressing their causes. Mulvaney questions that very premise, by asking why aid isn’t reducing these surges. But the State Department only just announced its latest aid package a few months ago.
And if anything, Mulvaney’s answer only underscores the fact that the conditions causing these migrations are dire indeed — which argues for increased efforts to address them. That’s precisely why Trump’s own border chief is saying we need to keep those efforts going, and build on them.
A much deeper failure
At bottom, Mulvaney’s defense of Trump’s latest rage-policy points to a much deeper failure at the core of Trump’s whole immigration worldview: the idea that migration surges can only be the result of efforts by migrants and/or their home countries to rip us off and take advantage of us.
Adam Serwer likes to say that the “cruelty” of Trump’s policies "is the point.” That’s true, but so is the worldview animating that cruelty. This double-sided depiction of what’s driving these migrations is absolutely foundational to Trumpism. In his 2015 announcement speech, Trump didn’t merely call Mexican immigrants rapists; he also accused Mexico of sending them our way.
Nothing has changed: Trump is now thrilling rally crowds by mocking asylum seekers. But note why he’s mocking them: for supposedly hyping the conditions in their home countries — again, to scam us. This justifies both the underlying bigotry and Trumpian solutions that are cruelly punitive and defensive: He will discourage migrations by making migrants as miserable as possible (family separations), and by walling them out. He will compel other countries (“s---hole countries” that are foisting their criminal outcasts onto us) to somehow detain their migrants by withholding aid from them.
But none of Trump’s prescriptions are working. The family separations didn’t cause a slowdown in migration, because the terrible conditions at home are a primary impetus. Nor will Trump’s wall make a difference. Geographical realities dictate that more barriers will not stop migrants from setting foot on U.S. soil, and besides, they are largely turning themselves in to apply for asylum in any case.
In this context, it’s absurd for Mulvaney to be pointing to the latest migrations as vindication for claims of a national emergency to build the wall. Precisely the opposite is true: The migrations underscore the utter failure of the very worldview that imagines this to be a “solution.”
Will Bunch argues provocatively that Trump might not even mind failing here: More chaos at the border, leading to more cruel imagery (such as migrants penned under an El Paso bridge) and ever more cruel responses, will galvanize the base into 2020. It’s a measure of how low we’ve sunk that this cannot be dismissed out of hand: Remember, Trump reportedly claimed of family separations that “my people love it.”
But all the cruelty and failure caused a massive backlash in 2018, helping cost Republicans the House. And it looks as if the border is going to get worse before it gets better — a lot worse, now that Trump appears determined to make it so.