Over the past two years, President Trump has put in place a long list of increasingly punitive measures from the nativist playbook to discourage immigration — both legal and illegal — into the United States.
The president has threatened to build a wall and has declared a state of emergency along the southern border. He has unleashed the full persecuting powers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which now operates with almost gleeful rapacity. He has separated families and subjected immigrant children to unthinkable abuses. He has threatened to close the border. He has ignored international practices and sent potential Central American refugees back to Mexico to wait out under dire conditions the long process of requesting asylum in the United States. When the courts pushed back, Trump snarled, giving “strong considerations” to sending detained immigrants to sanctuary cities.
You name it, the president has tried it.
Still, none of the administration’s retaliatory policies on immigration can compare, in their nearsightedness, to Trump’s plan to suspend U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the so-called Northern Triangle that is epicenter of the region’s migrant humanitarian crisis. The decision is not only self-defeating, it’s cruel.
Jonathan Blitzer of the New Yorker recently published a series of reports from western Guatemala, an area of the country known for its continuous outflow of immigrants toward the United States. Blitzer painted a bleak picture. The area, poor and rural, has been ravaged by climate change, sinking most communities into anguish. Extreme weather variations have made farming vexing. “If the rains don’t come at predictable moments, you have entire crops that can’t be cultivated,” Blitzer told me during a recent interview.
The results have been predictable. “Of the ninety-four thousand immigrants deported to Guatemala from the U.S. and Mexico last year, about half came from this region,” wrote Blitzer. Desperate Guatemalan immigrants have been risking everything to escape their increasingly inhospitable place of birth. Many, as Blitzer explained, mortgage land and property to pay the thousands of dollars smugglers demand. Most don’t make it to to the United States, and when they don’t, an even more menacing and unreceptive Guatemala awaits. Bound by enormous debt, many young locals are forced to try again. Most drop out of school, perpetuating a spiral of poverty of a sort that, Blitzer told me, would be “very hard for Americans to fully imagine.”
One of the few things that have managed to ameliorate the dismal situation in places like western Guatemala and others like it in Central America is assistance from the United States. In December 2015, the Obama administration allocated $750 million in aid as part of the “Alliance for Prosperity," a plan first introduced in 2014 to address the rising flow of immigration from the region. Since then, the pledge has steadily decreased to almost half that amount for the current fiscal year, including close to $70 million for Guatemala alone. Even if the sum is laughably low — the United States spends more than $500 million in “transportation costs” for the removal of immigrants alone — people in Guatemala have benefited greatly from U.S. support. For some, the support has reduced the burden brought on by climate change and, yes, has even begun to remove at least some of the incentives to emigrate north.
Blitzer tells the story of Sebastian Charchalac, a Guatemalan agronomist who has worked for years in the drought-stricken region of the country’s occidental highlands. Charchalac witnessed first-hand how important U.S. aid could be. With less than $200,000 at their disposal, a group of experts helped rural communities “diversify their crops, conserve water, and reforest some of the surrounding areas,” wrote Blitzer. The result was encouraging. Locals learned to harvest around the heavily fluctuating weather, slowly finding a way out of their hopelessness. In 2017, the Trump administration ended support for the program.
I recently spoke with Charchalac about the sudden reversal and its consequences for people in Guatemala. “Financial aid from the United States has been very important. It has had significant impact,” he told me. Even though only between 10 and 15 percent of aid to Guatemala finds its way to the struggle against the consequences of climate change, the money has been well spent. “We have had tangible improvement,” Charchalac said. When I asked him what would happen now that the Trump administrations has chosen to suspend aid, Charchalac appeared dismayed yet pragmatic. “It’s the wrong decision,” he told me. “This will only validate even more emigration. It would be much wiser to refocus aid under more technical and discerning methods. For now, poverty is on the rise and climate change will only make things worse.”
What truly frustrated Charchalac was how much the United States could accomplish if, instead of punishing Central America, Trump would choose to assist and invest in those countries. “You just need minimum funds to turn the situation around in most of the region,” he said. I finally asked him what would happen if the president or his Democratic successor chose to broaden U rather than removing it and wasting billions of dollars on punitive measures along the U.S. border. Charchalac didn’t hesitate. “It would be a great alternative,” he assured me. “There are many success stories all over with the help of USAID.” He told me it would make sense financially as well: “the United States would have low-cost solutions for the vast majority of potential immigrants."
Charchalac then imagined a better future for his countrymen. “People would take root, it would bring greater stability," he said. "The wall would stop being a priority.”
If only there were someone in Washington who would listen.