The Obama Administration Turns Its Gaze South of the Border

The White House’s budget calls for ramping up spending in Central America to help prevent a new flood of unaccompanied children.

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Department of Homeland Security about the administration's fiscal year 2016 budget request released earlier today February 2, 2015 in Washington, DC. The $4 trillion budget that President Obama sends Congress on Monday proposes higher taxes on wealthier Americans and corporations, and an $478 billion public works program for highway, bridge and transit upgrades. AFP PHOTO/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

As the State Department confronts a number of global challenges ranging from extremism in the Middle East and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, a surprising provision in the White House’s newly unveiled budget proposal for Foggy Bottom would boost funding for Central America, where a mass migration of unaccompanied minors to the southern United States has exposed profound societal problems in the region.

On Monday, the White House asked Congress for $1 billion for Central America, which would more than double the amount of money for the region provided by Congress last year. Much of the funds would go toward addressing the root causes of child migration, such as programs aimed at poverty-reduction, education, border security and community-building.

“This is huge,” said one congressional aide familiar with Central American issues. “Normally when you have big a foreign assistance program, the funding is mostly related to security. This has a security element, but it brings a real focus on violence prevention and rule-of-law in a way we haven’t seen before.”

Overall, the Obama administration’s nearly $4 trillion 2016 budget proposal for the federal government sets aside $50.3 billion for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, including $7 billion for expenses related to U.S. involvement in foreign military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, otherwise known in Pentagon-ese as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. Successive administrations have used that account as a way of making the overall budget requests for each department look smaller than they actually are.

The bigger ticket items include $3.5 billion toward countering the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and $275 million to bolster Ukraine’s fledgling government as it confronts a Russian-backed rebellion in its east. The administration has to date resisted providing the fragile pro-Western government in Kiev with weaponry and other lethal ammunition, but the New York Times reported that the White House is now seriously considering doing so.

The mini-pivot towards Central America began last year, when the administration began directing more money to the region after 51,000 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala were caught crossing the U.S. border. The humanitarian crisis caught the administration flat-footed and sparked fierce attacks from conservatives who said President Barack Obama’s allegedly lax immigration policies had led tens of thousands of Central Americans to send their children into the United States and trust that they would be allowed to stay there. Some Republicans called for them to be deported. But televised imagery of small children jammed into the detention facilities resulted in poignant human interest stories and some surprising moments, including a trip to the border by right-wing shock jock Glenn Beck, who came with a trove of toys and food supplies.

The new request includes nearly $250 million to “strengthen institutions” and help nations create competent civil services. That involves the United States helping national and local governments improve the management of public funds, protect human rights and due process, and target corruption.

The request also includes $142 million to help Mexico strengthen its porous southern border.

“They really focus on three particular issues,” said Larry Nowels, a consultant with the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. “Improving education and workforce training; improving governance through civil service reform and tackling corruption; and enhancing security.”

Within the White House National Security Council, Vice President Joe Biden has taken a particular interest in Central American affairs and is seen as a principal force in pushing for the funding boost.

Last week, Biden penned an op-ed in the emphasizing the youth bulge in Central America, where 6 million children are set to enter the workforce in the next decade. “If opportunity isn’t there for them, the entire Western Hemisphere will feel the consequences,” wrote Biden.

The congressional aide said the vice president “has become the Latin American point-person for the White House and he’s tried to get these [funding] numbers as high as possible.”

Whether the administration will succeed in getting a GOP-controlled Congress to fulfill its funding request is another story, as other foreign threats dominate the headlines.

John Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013. @john_hudson

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