WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump vowed Monday to cut off or "substantially" reduce aid to three Latin American nations, voicing fresh frustration as a growing caravan of migrants that originated in Honduras continued to make its way toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were not able to do the job of stopping people from leaving their country and coming illegally to the U.S.," Trump said in one of a string of morning tweets on the subject. "We will now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to them."
It was not immediately clear what payments Trump was alluding to or the extent to which he could act without congressional approval.
And across his administration there was no indication of any action in response to what he tweeted was a national emergency. Federal agencies said they'd received no guidance on the president's declaration, issued as he attempts to make illegal immigration a focus of next month's midterm elections.
Later Monday, in an exchange with reporters before leaving Washington for a rally in Texas, Trump again mentioned the three countries and that the U.S. gives them "tremendous amounts of money" for nothing."
"Every year, we give them foreign aid," Trump said. "And they did nothing for us. Nothing."
If Trump should follow through with his threat to end or greatly reduce U.S. aid, that could worsen the poverty and violence that are a root cause of the migration he has been railing against, critics said.
Cutting aid could also undermine what the Trump administration has identified as a key foreign policy goal: challenging China's emergence as a strategic rival in the region.
The governments of Guatemala and Honduras did not immediately respond to Trump's threat. Jimmy Morales, president of Guatemala, planned to travel to Tecun Uman on his country's border with Mexico late Monday.
Roberto Lorenzana, a spokesman for El Salvador's presidency, said his government hopes tensions over the caravan decrease after the U.S. elections.
Asked if he thinks Trump will follow through on his threat to cut aid to El Salvador, he said, "I don't know. Of course the president has a lot of power, but they will have to explain it there to the different government structures."
Lorenzana added that El Salvador has significantly reduced violence, a key driver of migration, and that the flow of Salvadoran migrants has dropped 60 percent in two years.
In 2014, when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol stations, Congress authorized a $750 million aid package to the three countries to boost economic growth and improve public safety to help create conditions that would prevent the exodus of migrants.
That hasn't worked, but experts said the strategy would take up to a decade and require continued investment and oversight under a coordinated strategy that was upended when Trump succeeded President Barack Obama.
Trump for months has sought to use foreign aid as a cudgel more broadly, threatening to withhold humanitarian and other aid from "enemies of America" and using it to pressure foreign governments to bend to his will.
However, it was unclear whether the president's tweets had any policy implications.
Asked what the administration was doing to operationalize the president's tweet, White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday evening that "we're continuing to look at all options on the table."
"The president wants to make sure we're doing everything we can to secure and protect our borders and that's exactly what he's been talking about," she said.
It is Congress, not the president, that appropriates aid money. The White House would have to notify Congress if it wanted to cut or re-allocate aid, which could delay or complicate the process.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Monday that "my colleagues and I will not stand idly by as this administration ignores congressional intent."
The three countries received about $500 million from the U.S. in fiscal 2017. That money funds programs that promote economic development and education, as well as supporting democracy and human rights, among other issues. It was not immediately clear how much money Trump now hopes to cut, though the administration already had been pushing to reduce the government's global aid and foreign operations budget by about 30 percent for fiscal 2019 that began Oct 1.
Trump also tweeted, "Sadly, it looks like Mexico's Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States." He added without evidence that "criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in."
"I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National [emergency]," he wrote. "Must change laws!"
Asked about his claim that the caravan includes "criminals and unknown Middle Easterners," Trump told reporters to go look for themselves.
"Go into the middle of the caravan, take your cameras and search, OK?" Trump said. "You're going to find MS-13, you're going to find Middle Eastern, you're going to find everything. And guess what? We're not allowing them in our country. We want safety."
Associated Press journalists traveling with the caravan for more than a week have spoken with Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans but have not met any of the "Middle Easterners" that Trump claimed had "mixed in" with the Central American migrants.
Trump's tweets marked the latest escalation of his efforts to thrust immigration politics into the national conversation in the closing weeks of the congressional elections. He and his senior aides have long believed the issue -- which was a centerpiece of his winning presidential campaign -- is key to revving up his base and motivating GOP voters to turn out in November.
Trump made that point explicitly in another of his Monday morning tweets.
"Every time you see a Caravan, or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!" Trump wrote. "Remember the Midterms! So unfair to those who come in legally."
At the rally for Sen. Ted Cruz on Monday night, Trump escalated his accusations further, accusing Democrats, without citing any evidence, of "encouraging millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overwhelm our nation," adding that they "have launched an assault on the sovereignty of our country."
Although Trump blames the Democrats, a pair of immigration bills he had backed failed in the Republican-controlled House amid policy disputes between the GOP's conservative and more moderate wings.
HUNGER AND DEATH
In Mexico, the caravan's numbers have continued to grow as migrants walk and hitch rides through hot and humid weather, and the United Nations estimated that it currently comprises some 7,200 people, "many of whom intend to continue the march north."
However, they were still at least 1,140 miles from the nearest border crossing -- McAllen, Texas -- and the length of their journey could more than double if they go to Tijuana-San Diego, the destination of another caravan earlier this year. That one shrank significantly as it moved through Mexico, and only a tiny fraction -- about 200 of the 1,200 in the group -- reached the California border.
The same could well happen this time around as some turn back, splinter off on their own or decide to take their chances on asylum in Mexico -- as 1,128 have done so far, according to the country's Interior Department.
While such caravans have occurred semi-regularly over the years, this one has become a particularly hot topic ahead of the Nov. 6 midterm elections in the U.S., and an immigrant rights activist traveling with the group accused Trump of using it to stir up his Republican base.
"It is a shame that a president so powerful uses this caravan for political ends," said Irineo Mujica of the group Pueblo Sin Fronteras -- People Without Borders -- which works to provide humanitarian aid to migrants.
Some have questioned the timing so close to the vote and whether some political force was behind it, though by all appearances it began as a group of about 160 who decided to band together in Honduras for protection and snowballed as they moved north.
"No one is capable of organizing this many people," Mujica said, adding that there are only two forces driving them: "hunger and death."
More migrants were continuing to join the caravan.
Ana Luisa Espana, a laundry worker from Chiquimula, Guatemala, joined the caravan as she saw it pass through her country.
Even though the goal is to reach the U.S. border, she said: "We only want to work and if a job turns up in Mexico, I would do it. We would do anything, except bad things."
Denis Omar Contreras, a Honduran-born caravan leader also with Pueblo Sin Fronteras, said accusations that the caravan is harboring terrorists should stop.
"There isn't a single terrorist here," Contreras said. "We are all people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And as far as I know there are no terrorists in these four countries, at least beyond the corrupt governments."
The migrants, many of them with blistered and bandaged feet, left the southern city of Tapachula in the early afternoon Monday under a burning sun bound for Huixtla, about 25 miles away.
In interviews along the journey, migrants have said they are fleeing widespread violence, poverty and corruption. The caravan is unlike previous mass migrations for its unprecedented large numbers and because it largely sprang up spontaneously through word of mouth.
Carlos Leonidas Garcia Urbina, a 28-year-old from Tocoa, Honduras, said he was cutting the grass in his father's yard when he heard about the caravan, dropped the shears on the ground and ran to join with just $20 in his pocket.
"We are going to the promised land," Garcia said, motioning to his fellow travelers.
Motorists in pickups and other vehicles have been offering the migrants rides, often in overloaded truck beds, and a male migrant fell from the back of one Monday and died.
"It is the responsibility of the driver, but it is very dangerous, and there you have the consequences," Mexican federal police officer Miguel Angel Dominguez said, pointing to a puddle of blood around the man's head.
Police started stopping crowded trucks and forcing people to get off.
Information for this article was contributed by John Wagner, David Nakamura and Carol Morello of The Washington Post; and by Zeke Miller, Jill Colvin, Robert Burns, Matthew Pennington, Matthew Lee, Mark Stevenson, Peter Orsi, Edie Lederer, Catherine Lucey and Marcos Aleman of The Associated Press.
A Section on 10/23/2018
Print Headline: Trump vows aid cut over migrant caravan