President Donald Trump's decision to cut $450 million in foreign aid to three Central American countries – collectively known as the Northern Triangle – will end dozens of projects designed to bolster security, the economy, education and judicial systems.
The goal of the programs is to improve conditions in the countries so citizens don't flee to the U.S. While Trump wants to cut the assistance, former officials say the programs are seeing results. For example:
In Honduras, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officials have been working in local communities to reduce violence, contributing to a drop in the homicide rate every year between 2011 and 2018.
In El Salvador, where a struggling economy has pushed people to make the trek north, USAID helped small- and medium-sized businesses create more than 22,000 jobsbetween 2011 and 2016.
And in Guatemala, where the judicial system has been wrought with corruption and inefficiency, U.S. money has helped the government hire more judges and provided security for justice officials to protect them from cartels they are trying to prosecute.
Trump said the aid cuts, and his threat to close the southern border entirely, will punish governments of those countries for failing to prevent people from fleeing.
Researchers at Vanderbilt's Latin American Public Opinion Project surveyed 29,000 people living in five Central American countries, and found that those living in neighborhoods with U.S.-funded projects saw less violence. In those communities, 51% reported fewer murders and extortion attempts, 35% said they no longer avoided walking through dangerous areas and 25% said they saw a drop in drug sales.
"It's an extraordinarily rigorous study, and it's very persuasive," said Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, who was not part of the report but has studied the reasons young people flee Central America for the United States.
Trump sees things differently.
The combination of violence, poverty and food insecurity in Central America has driven record numbers of families to head north to seek U.S. asylum.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said rising migration showed that U.S. aid was not working.
Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 36,000 members of family units in February – a record – and border communities are being overwhelmed trying to care for them. That figure has steadily increased in recent months, with Border Patrol officials predicting a further rise for March.
"The president has determined that these programs have not effectively prevented illegal immigration from coming to the United States, and they’ve not achieved the desired results," Palladino said. "It's not succeeded in stemming this flow."
Still, Clemens said cutting off funding was misguided. He said the evidence, including the Vanderbilt study, shows that U.S. aid has led to gradual progress in living conditions in Central America.
"There is literally zero evidence that bludgeoning the (Central American) governments and long-time partners of those governments is somehow going to produce security in the region," he said.