President Trump threatens to curtail development assistance from migrant-sending countries

Here are three reasons why President Trump’s stated plan to reduce development assistance to countries that fail to reduce illegal immigration is not only nonsensical, but also dangerous.


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

On Long Island on Wednesday for a tightly scripted event on MS-13 violence, President Trump made a startling announcement about his alleged intentions to tie development assistance—presumably to Central America and Mexico—to a country’s ability to control undocumented immigrants coming to the United States: “We’re going to work out something where every time somebody comes in from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large amount of money from what we give them in aid—if we give them aid at all,” the president said.  It’s not the first time he has threatened to tie development assistance to his political agenda, including immigration and battling narcotics.  But this time, he claimed that there is a review under way: “we’re looking at our whole aid structure, and it’s going to be changed very radically.”

Now, of course, this president is prone to throwing out unrealistic policy ideas that never see the light of day, at times even just making stuff up. This is possibly one of these occasions, but President Trump’s on-the-fly public policy spit balling has consequences; it builds up expectations among his base that disparage the logic of existing policies and, in this case, also reinforce a strong negative perception of both development assistance and immigrants—though this was nothing next to his “animals” description.

Here are three reasons why President Trump’s seat-of-the-pants comments are wrong and dangerous.

  1. Development assistance is intended to help create economic opportunities to keep people from leaving to look for opportunities elsewhere. Cutting or ending aid to countries that send people as a way to curtail immigration defies logic.  It’s like creating a health care policy in which vaccines are reduced every time there is another case of, say, polio, to prevent people from getting polio.  Programs like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the smaller Inter-American Foundation are specifically targeting funds to job creation and empowerment programs in large sending communities to prevent potential migrants from leaving.  And USAID programs in security and rule of law are helping governments in Mexico and the Northern Triangle reduce the violence and crime that many immigrants are fleeing.
  2. All development programs are defined by broad national interest and geostrategic concerns; reducing them to the single issue of immigration is facile and dangerous. As the former USAID Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, Mark Feierstein, told us, the statement “assumes that aid is a gift to other countries, when in fact our foreign aid advances U.S. interests.”  In this case, U.S. aid to Mexico and Central America is tied to a series of U.S. national concerns: combatting narcotics trafficking, maintaining U.S. influence in the region, supporting markets for U.S. exports, and reducing crime and violence, among others. (And again, that idea that development assistance is just a gift from an excessively beneficent U.S. perpetuates the negative and dangerous perception that many have of our development programs.)
  3. The belief that governments can prevent their citizens from leaving the country unofficially is simplistic, as is the idea that denying them money will create incentives for them to do something they can’t do now. Immigration and crime and violence in Central America and Mexico stem from a deeper problem: weak states.  Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and many of the 31 states in heavily decentralized Mexico lack the institutional capacity to control large parts of their territory, and provide basic services to their citizens, such as education, security and health care. That’s why they need development assistance. The idea that denying governments funding specifically intended to help them shore up and improve their ability to control their territory and borders will reduce illegal immigration just doesn’t make sense.

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