The church and Central American migration

Trump announces aid cuts to Central America

“After many years (decades), Mexico is apprehending large numbers of people at their Southern Border, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They have ALL been taking U.S. Money for years, and doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for us,” tweeted President Donald Trump on April 2, 2019. The tweet alludes to the reason for Trump’s recent decision to stop foreign aid to the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and blames them for failing to keep their citizens within their borders.

Trump has often accused Mexico and Central American countries of failing to stop the flow of migrants into the United States. An April 3, 2019, analysis in The Washington Post of the president’s recent Twitter feed says that this accusation stands in contrast to a report in the Mexican newspaper El Universal that between January 2015 and September 2018, Mexico deported 436,125 persons from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. In addition, in 2018, Mexico offered to host asylum seekers whose cases are pending.

Trump’s comments also stand in contrast to statements made by U.S. immigration officials who have praised El Salvador for using aid money effectively, the Post article shows. For instance, between 2015 and 2018, the country has cut its murder rate in half. U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said in July 2018, “What [El Salvador is] doing is working, both on the security front and on the economic opportunity front.”

Since Trump’s announcement in late March about cutting aid to Central America, his rhetoric about these Central American countries and the people fleeing them to seek asylum in the United States has often been mocking and, at best, misleading. In a recent speech, the president said that asylum seekers “look like they should be fighting for the UFC” (Ultimate Fighting Championship). He added that they’re coached by lawyers to say, “I am very fearful for my life.” Once again, the facts on the ground are a bit different. The Associated Press reported that according to recent Homeland Security immigration statistics, in 2017 over half of asylum seekers were unaccompanied children. Of the people granted asylum, nearly one-third were children and almost half were women.

Implications of these cuts

The aid program ended by Trump was designed specifically to address the root causes of migration —  primarily poverty and violence. Critics of the president’s decision point out that it would eliminate programs intended to keep Central American migrants in their home countries. Jim Nealon, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, said that Trump has a misconception about how the Central American aid program works, Nealon told The Washington Post in a March 30, 2019, article. Aid money doesn’t go to foreign governments but rather “to programs designed and implemented by the U.S., with the cooperation of governments and civil society.” Nonprofit groups are responsible for administering much of the aid.

Nealon also pointed out that Central American governments aren’t trying to send their citizens to the United States. “To the contrary, they already cooperate with us in trying to deter migration. But they can’t prevent their citizens from leaving the country.” Although analysts have differing opinions about how well the aid is working to improve conditions and stem migration from Central American countries, even many who doubt its efficacy think cutting funds will have negative implications.

Writing in The New York Times on April 1, 2019, Anita Isaacs and Anne Preston, professors at Haverford College, argue that aid to Central America doesn’t work well, but ending it will likely increase immigration. Calling Trump’s decision “a rash response to a real policy dilemma,” they point out that it will heighten tensions between Congress and the White House and thereby block bipartisan efforts to address the issue. They also believe cutting funds will fail to persuade Central American governments to act to reduce migration, as it will do nothing to increase these countries’ concern about the plight of the poor within their borders, nor will it deter their alliances with organized crime.

What can the church do?

Many faith-based groups are working at the southern border of the United States to provide direct assistance to asylum seekers and other migrants; however, such on-site work isn’t feasible for many local congregations. Nevertheless, there are a number of other ways congregations can work to support asylum seekers and migrants.

In 1996, several pastors and attorneys who are part of The United Methodist Church founded the organization Just Neighbors to “develop a practical response to the legal challenges that low-income immigrants face in the United States. The organization set out to provide accurate and reliable information and services to the immigrant community. . . . Based on the Just Neighbors model and with their support, UMCOR established Justice for Our Neighbors in 1999. Since that time, Justice for Our Neighbors has grown to a network of 18 sites that support over 50 clinics to serve thousands of clients annually,” the Justice for Our Neighbors website says. Each of these clinics offers legal counsel to clients and provides “outreach to foster mutual understanding between immigrants and the larger community in which they live.”

In The United Methodist Church, many conferences have a Rapid Response Team made up of people passionate about creating welcoming congregations and mobilizing both churches and conferences to advocate for just and humane immigration reform. 

The Rev. John McCullough, president and CEO of Church World Service, responded to recent developments in U.S. policy toward migrants by recalling the story of Jesus’ birth. McCullough wrote in Sojourners, “The story of Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus is the founding story of my Christian faith, and it powerfully demonstrates that there is always room for the outcast and the migrant. As Americans and as people of faith, we know that vulnerable families knocking on our door and seeking protection are not a border security crisis — their story and how we respond is a test of our humanity.”


The scope of aid to Central America

In an April 1, 2019, New York Times article titled “Where Does Aid to Central America Go? Police Officers, Farmers and NGOs,” Elisabeth Malkin explains that U.S. aid to Central America is distributed “to nongovernmental organizations, churches, charities and private contractors that carry out projects for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development.” The Washington Office on Latin America reports that the largest percentage of funding has gone to prevent violence and improve security and justice systems.

The kind of aid given depends on each country’s needs. In El Salvador, much of the aid has gone to prevent violence, improve security and community policing, improve the judicial system and provide job training for at-risk youth. In Honduras, about 44 percent of funding has been directed to programs that work to improve justice and security, and approximately 30 percent has gone to antipoverty programs in rural areas. In Guatemala, a large portion of U.S. aid has gone to alleviate poverty, fund anticorruption efforts, and support small businesses. Beyond this, aid has also been used to help communities adapt to the effects of climate change and to prevent maternal and infant deaths and HIV infections.

Malkin notes a change in emphasis under the Trump administration “toward security and away from the focus on ethical governance. That shift has taken pressure off Central American governments to become more accountable, and both the Guatemalan and Honduran governments have recently pushed back against anticorruption efforts.”

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