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WASHINGTON — President Trump backed off his threat to close the U.S.-Mexican border after howling from members of his own party, but he’s following through with his other promise to stem migration: cutting off $500 million in U.S. aid to Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Back in 2015, and facing a tide of unaccompanied minors showing up at the border, former President Barack Obama got then-Speaker Paul Ryan to rally 150 members of the GOP to double the amount of foreign assistance America sends to the Northern Triangle.
But in a sign of the vise-like grip the president has over his party and its immigration policy, members of the GOP who once supported increasing aid to the Northern Triangle are falling in line.
Many of those lawmakers contend it’s merely because circumstances have changed and the increased aid hasn't worked.
“I don’t think you’re moving the needle any longer,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who backed Obama’s aid package for the Northern Triangle, told VICE News at the Capitol. “My personal opinion is it’s finding its way into bad people’s pockets, and it’s not stopping or changing any of the behavior that’s causing people to flee.”
Reed is a co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of purported moderates. He contends he wants to keep sending aid to those nations, and hopes the threat of a cutoff will be enough to change the actions of these impoverished nations.
“Threaten removal of this foreign aid, and if you don’t see a behavioral change, you’re going to have to take action to disrupt the status quo,” Reed said. “Hopefully it can be avoided. In the sense of, by threatening it you’ll start seeing behavioral changes and economic changes.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also voted in 2015 to double U.S. assistance in the Northern Triangle, two years after he had joined seven colleagues – commonly referred to as the Gang of Eight – in crafting a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that was decried by most conservative pundits as “amnesty.”
But Graham — who's up for re-election this cycle — is now all-in on Trump’s new hard-line tactics, including his threat to completely shut down the southern border as well as cut off aid to the Northern Triangle.
“These countries have got to take more control over their populations”
“These countries have got to take more control over their populations,” Graham told reporters at the Capitol. “Mexico is going to have to do more. They’re literally walking across Mexico to get to show up here.”
Graham now chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and he would barter with Democrats if they'd just show a willingness to change U.S. asylum laws to make it easier to deport migrants to their home countries.
“The key is to change our laws,” Graham said. “I’m willing to give Democrats something for that. I think that’s the only way this ends.”
Is aid working?
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) is a senior appropriator who also voted to double aid to the Northern Triangle. While he opposes closing the southern border, he’s also backing Trump’s aid threat.
“What hold have you got over them except for the money that you give them?” Simpson told VICE News while riding in an elevator in the Capitol. “The argument is that this money is used to make conditions better there so you don’t have [mass migration] — it doesn’t seem to be working? So I understand what he’s doing.”
Even a co-chair of the House Refugee Caucus, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), says he’s fully behind Trump’s threats, even as he claims to ultimately oppose cutting off assistance in three countries.
“I am in favor of that aid, but I think each country needs to do more to mitigate the exodus of their own people. They’re not for that, really, but what are they doing to try and stop it? I think it’s a shot across the bow,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told reporters outside the Capitol. “I think he’s trying to send a message that we really want the governments themselves to take more proactive actions to mitigate this mass exodus.”
Ultimately it seems Trump has successfully changed the politics and national dialogue surrounding immigration. A top Trump ally, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), says his voters aren’t happy with Congress sending tens of millions of dollars overseas, even if most experts say that money is intended to address the underlying problems causing the social and economic unrest in the Northern Triangle.
“The vast majority of the financial aid is viewed by people back home as, I believe, probably a little bit excessive — no matter the merits of the particular contribution,” Meadows, who chairs the House Freedom Caucus, told VICE News.
Cuts to law enforcement
But some Republicans are urging their colleagues not to put electoral politics above sound policy. Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), the former chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, recently visited the Northern Triangle and is desperately trying to get his fellow Republicans to slow down and consider where American assistance is actually directed.
“Most importantly, if you look at the aid we give them, it goes to international law enforcement, so this is the FBI, DEA and international law enforcement, both investigating, arresting and prosecuting MS-13,” McCaul told VICE News of why cutting off aid would be foolish. “That would be, I think, a dangerous move.”
While Republicans are twisting themselves in knots to adapt their brands to Trump’s tough-on-immigrant tactics, for Democrats the fiery rhetoric is just a smokescreen that they see right through.
“It’s his continuation of making, not just immigration, but making both the region and immigrants in general his campaign issue,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) told VICE News at the Capitol.
Cover image: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he leaves the White House April 05, 2019 in Washington, DC. Trump is traveling to Southern California to visit the U.S.-Mexico border and to Beverly Hills for a fundraiser. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)