Pay to Stay?
Why U.S. aid to Central America has not eased the flow of migrants.
TIJUANA, Mexico—For years, the United States has given millions of dollars in aid to Central America in the hope that the money would help improve people’s lives and reduce their incentives to migrate to the United States.
So why hasn’t it worked?
That question has grown increasingly relevant in recent months as a caravan of migrants has made its way across the region toward the southern U.S. border, triggering an aggressive response from President Donald Trump. His administration has deployed troops, strung up barbed wire, and sought to ban asylum for anyone who sneaks across the border. Yet the migrants, thousands of them in this wave, have shown no inclination to turn back.
Over the past two years, the United States provided about $1.3 billion in aid to Central America, mainly to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The money was part of a U.S. push, announced in 2014, to double the aid to the region under a plan known as the Alliance for Prosperity.
But in this period of time, the money has not made a decisive difference in any of the countries, according to experts and officials. While $1.3 billion is a lot, it’s still a relatively small sum for countries in need. And even when specific aid programs provide benefits, it’s not clear they outweigh the perceived advantages of immigration.
“It’s not a negligible amount, but it’s also not the kind of help that’s going to change the conditions of life for the entire population,” said Hugo Noe Pino, an economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Honduras is the most prominent case—most of the migrants on the caravan this year are from there. The United States has provided aid to Honduras since the 1950s, and in the 1980s it used the country as a staging ground for wars it backed in El Salvador and Nicaragua. (The United States has been criticized for keeping military aid flowing while politicians and security forces undermined democracy and the rule of law.) The relationship deepened in the past five years under the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández.
Honduras is a U.S. partner in counternarcotics operations, and much of the assistance over the years has gone to security. But the U.S. Congress broadened the focus of its aid following a sudden rise in unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America in 2014, allocating more money for development and government transparency programs, with the goal of reducing migration.
Of the nearly $182 million the U.S. apportioned to Honduras in 2017, some two-thirds went to security forces and to improve the courts and government institutions that hold them accountable. Another third went to addressing economic conditions, according to the Washington Office on Latin America.
The money seems to have had some impact. One study showed that perception of blackmail, extortion, and murder fell precipitously in Central American neighborhoods where the U.S. Agency for International Development had operated. And Honduras as a whole has made its own strides. Homicides, for instance, have gone down by 50 percent in the past six years.
Carlos Hernández, who runs the Association for a More Just Society, said his group has used seed money from USAID to develop a legal center to encourage people to report corruption and come forward as witnesses to crimes. He said he advised a government commission whose investigations led to the removal or suspension of 5,000 corrupt police officers.
But U.S. money amounts to only a small percentage of his budget. And in a country where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, it’s hard to convince people that they would be better off at home with the systematic problems Honduras has faced for decades. It remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and fewer than one in 10 crimes is solved.
“Much of the investment that USAID had done in the region is a palliative to the violence,” an employee at a former USAID pilot program told Foreign Policy.
What has helped Hondurans more dramatically in their day-to-day lives are remittances, which make up around a fifth of Honduras’ GDP—billions more than foreign aid. For the migrants, life in the United States offers more safety and financial security, and a chance to send money to their relatives at home.
“Seven thousand people leave the country, headed for the United States, every month,” Carlos Hernández said. “The difference this time is that they left together, and that’s what caught the world’s attention.”
While technically, U.S. aid money is conditional on improvement to the justice system, Juan Orlando Hernández’s government has often managed to sidestep reforms.
“Programs can only do so much—the problems are so deep-rooted,” said one Honduran official who works on development assistance. “The problem is that there is rampant impunity, which has bred corruption and let it flourish.”
Hernández’s election was rife with irregularities, prompting the head of the Organization of American States to call for a fresh vote. But the United States endorsed the results.
The United States and other countries have pressed Honduras to crack down on corruption, even as Washington has regularly turned a blind eye to its graft and security force abuses. A string of cases have come to light, but the visibility has not necessarily solved the problem. It has mainly sharpened the picture of how severe corruption has become.
Hernández, for example, admitted that public money was spent on his first presidential campaign, and there is proof that security forces killed protesters in the unrest after his recent election. Hernández’s brother was recently arrested in the United States on charges of drug trafficking.
After an investigation implicated 60 lawmakers for pocketing funds for development projects, parliament passed what is now called the “impunity pact,” which shields the legislators from prosecution.
The corruption has raised questions in the minds of some U.S. members of congress about the effectiveness of American aid.
“If we give American taxpayer dollars as aid to a foreign government whose leaders are not serious about rooting out corruption and being more transparent and accountable, then there are severe limitations on what we can achieve,” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking member of the Senate committee that allocates foreign aid, told FP.
Some analysts say the only way to capitalize on modest gains would be to maintain or even step up the funding, particularly for violence prevention, justice reform, and jobs programs. Others say U.S. dollars only serve to legitimize a government mired in corruption.
Still other immigration experts believe no amount of aid dollars alone would reduce the incentive for Central Americans to try to get to the United States.
“A lot of donor countries and development agencies would like to think of development as a cure for migration, but it’s just not,” said Kathleen Newland, the co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute. “There are so many other factors that go into people’s decisions to leave.”
At the border, meanwhile, migrants who arrived with the caravan are expecting to wait weeks or months just for a first asylum interview. Still, many say it’s better than the life they left behind.
“Sometimes one has more fear of the police than the gangs, because they’re a bunch of gangsters, and they do whatever they want,” said Edwin Castro Pineda, who made his way to the border from northern Honduras. “It all starts with the president.”