President Donald Trump in recent days has decried "weak" US border laws that he says leave the US vulnerable to unfettered immigration -- but some of his policies could have the effect of worsening a Central American migrant crisis.
Even as the Department of Homeland Security says the southern border "is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before," Trump has stepped up his hardline immigration rhetoric, calling on the US military to guard the US-Mexico border until his long-promised wall is complete. He's hammered Mexico and other countries for policies that he says are disadvantageous to the US and that send unsavory individuals into the country.
But experts say the President has been pursuing other policies that could substantially harm Central America -- and in doing so, he risks creating conditions that generate the exact kind of mass exodus north that he talks about wanting to solve.
Immigration is driven by what are called push and pull factors. The US has been seeking aggressive immigration powers to cut down on what they say are pull factors -- the perception that immigrants can live illegally with impunity in the US. But those very policies could affect push factors -- the conditions of poverty and violence that drive immigrants elsewhere out of desperation.
"The US sort of talks out of both sides of its mouth," said Eric Olson, a Latin America expert at the nonpartisan Wilson Center.
"If you're investing in the region to address the drivers of migration and at the same time pursuing a policy of large-scale deportation, or at least potentially large-scale deportation, and you're creating more obstacles for people leaving the region for reasons like violence and so on, you're really creating more instability, not less instability."
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The administration argues its policies are designed to close "loopholes" in US immigration law and save lives by deterring immigrants from taking the dangerous journey north.
The policies that experts find particularly harmful fall into a few categories.
The administration has pursued an aggressive effort to arrest and eventually deport far more immigrants, especially non-criminal ones, than Barack Obama did toward the end of his presidency.
The problem with that is two-fold. For one, while getting criminals and gang members out of the US is an understandable policy goal and has been pursued by many administrations, Central American countries already struggle to keep organized crime at bay. MS-13, Trump's favorite target, actually began in the US among Salvadorans, and became a transnational gang that morphed into the enterprise it is today because the US deported those criminals back to Central America, where the gang grew much stronger. El Salvador has complained that the US does not always warn them or give them adequate information when criminals and gang members are sent back so they can track or imprison them, though the US has worked to do so.
But experts say that it's the vast increase in the numbers of non-criminal immigrants that are being arrested and deported that is more concerning for stability in the region. These individuals often have roots in US communities and live peacefully. They also may be sending money back home. The World Bank estimates that remittances from abroad made up 17% of El Salvador's Gross Domestic Product in 2016. Deported back to their home countries, these citizens could struggle or compete with an already struggling middle class and lack of job opportunities. They could also become targets for gangs.
"Trump has gone beyond (Obama) and it's a much broader and less selective, targeted deportation, and that aggravates already high levels of insecurity in those countries. ... They simply just don't have the capacity to absorb them," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, which promotes prosperity and democracy in Latin America.
Ending Temporary Protected Status
The Trump administration in the past year decided to terminate a group of protections for Central American immigrants based on natural disasters back home. In January, the Department of Homeland Security announced that more than 200,000 Salvadorans who have lived in the US since at least 2001 would no longer be covered, meaning many of them could be forced to move back or risk deportation. That followed a similar decision for thousands of Nicaraguans and what is expected to be a similar fate for tens of thousands of Hondurans later this year, all of whom have lived in the US since at least 1999.
Many of those immigrants have had US citizen children, held jobs, opened businesses, bought homes and were required to maintain clean criminal records, but the Trump administration said the effects of the original natural disasters in the region had improved enough to end their permission to stay in the US.
Back in Central America, those individuals would also likely be targets for gangs' extortion attempts, as they would be perceived to have some more wealth coming from the US, and also would struggle to find jobs and housing in the region.
Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center, called the move to end TPS "short-sighted" and "cynical."
"These are people who have been in the US for many, many years, have family here, have jobs, have been contributing ... and to say that we're trying to address the root causes of migration at the same time that you make it excruciatingly difficult for countries in the Northern Triangle to receive these large numbers of returnees is ... short-sighted at best and cynical at its core," Arnson said.
The administration has proposed steep cuts to aid to Central American countries in its annual budget proposals. Congress has ignored the White House's requests, keeping funding steady. But in its proposals, the White House has sought to cut tens of millions of dollars from State Department support to El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the region writ large. The budget proposed to cut 36%, 43%, 29% and 74% from each of those budgets, respectively, in 2018, and another 16% for Guatemala and 84% for the region in 2019.
Trump on Tuesday said he would consider cutting aid off if countries do not cooperate enough to his liking.
"The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our 'Weak Laws' Border, had better be stopped before it gets there. Cash cow NAFTA is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras and the countries that allow this to happen. Congress MUST ACT NOW!" Trump tweeted Tuesday.
One of the more difficult to assess areas of the administration's policies is trade. Trump has repeatedly threatened to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement that includes Mexico, but has been quiet about the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which generally favors the US.
Still, the improvement of the Mexican economy has been a major stabilizing force in the region, and is part of why net migration from Mexico to the US is near zero in recent years and why the Mexican government is able to stop and deport large numbers of Central Americans before they reach the US. If US-Mexico relations were to sour or a trade war to ensue, the results could be unpredictable and potentially drive more Mexicans and Central Americans north.
"Mexico is a big player in that region, the big story is how out-migration from Mexico has gone down," Shifter said. "I think if there are economic pressures that get worse, that could change. So all of these things are interconnected in a way. ... You just can't close off from these countries and say we're not going to give you aid and review our trade agreements, that simply is not going to work over the long term and in fact is going to be self-defeating."