WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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13 Feb 2018 | Commentary

White House Budget Reveals Priorities for Latin America: Massive Cutbacks and Increased Deportations

As Congress strives to finish the appropriations process for FY2018 by the March 23 deadline, yesterday the White House released its budget proposal for FY2019. Much like last year’s proposal—which Congress mostly ignored when it came to appropriating assistance for Latin America—this year’s proposal calls for dramatic cuts in aid to Latin America, along with onerous increases in immigration enforcement and border security.

“This budget proposal is a stark and shattering look at the Trump administration’s priorities for Latin America,” said Matt Clausen, President at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “It also shows that the White House remains insistent on pushing divisive, ineffective, and costly border security and immigration policies.”

Breaking down the numbers: border security

The Trump administration is requesting an overall 22 percent increase to the Department of Homeland Security budget compared to 2017 (in contrast, the State Department budget would drop by 26 percent).

Specifically, the White House budget asks for the following:

  • $1.6 billion in funding in 2019 to build a 65-mile segment of border wall in south Texas (coming out to about $24.6 million per mile).

  • Additionally, after Congress passed a budget agreement last week that raised the limits on FY2018 spending, the White House asked for an additional $15.56 billion to be set aside in the FY2018 budget. These funds would be spent building the border wall over the next 10 years.

  • $782 million to hire an additional 2,000 ICE agents and 750 Border Patrol agents, as part of the White House’s broader demand for a 10,000-person increase in ICE.

  • A 25 percent increase in the number of beds at immigrant detention centers. This suggests a dramatic expansion of enforcement actions: targeting all undocumented immigrants, including the parents of U.S.-born children, and locking up asylum seekers who are seeking protection in our country.

  • $44 million to fund non-intrusive inspection equipment at official border crossings, known as ports of entry, where the majority of drugs are smuggled into the United States. This seems to anticipate that stronger enforcement in the rural areas between the ports of entry may lead to increased contraband flowing through these very ports. Still, given the amount of contraband currently flowing through the ports of entry, the budget does not mention additional funds for hiring more of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff responsible for staffing the ports of entry. Instead, the budget prioritizes Border Patrol hires—even though there is no shortage of Border Patrol agents—over the very understaffed and overworked agents at the ports.

The budget proposal does include other investments that would increase border security, including funds for technology and strengthening the capacity to conduct inspections at official ports of entry. Ultimately, however, Members of Congress should refuse to approve funding for a costly, ineffective, and divisive border wall, increased Border Patrol staffing, and expanding ICE detention and deportation capacity that will tear families apart. Explore WOLA’s additional resources on the ongoing fight over immigration and border security in Washington:

Breaking down the numbers: foreign aid

Overall, the Trump administration proposes to cut Foreign Operations aid to Latin America by 36 percent from 2017 levels, to $1.09 billion in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, this would roughly tie for the lowest level of aid to Latin America that WOLA staff have measured in 23 years of monitoring.

This is the second time that the Trump administration has tried to cut Latin America aid by more than a third—last year’s White House proposal did the same.

Again, Congress has not finished approving a 2018 budget yet, but the House bill and the Senate’s draft bill both rejected the White House’s planned 2018 cuts. This is likely to happen again to the 2019 aid request. Our analysis of the White House’s numbers, then, expects Congress to reverse most of the proposed FY2019 budget cuts.

Nevertheless, the White House budget offers a stark portrait of the Trump administration’s priorities for Latin America, which would be bad for the region and harm the United States’ own interests.

The most notable cuts proposed by the White House include:

  • The aid request would end the Development Assistance program, which provided $484 million in assistance in 2016. It would undo only $154 million of that cut by increasing a new, combined economic aid program. (The Tillerson State Department proposed eliminating the Development Assistance account in last year’s budget request. While the House and Senate haven’t yet approved a final 2018 bill, both chambers’ draft bills rejected this idea.)

  • This cut in Development Assistance, combined with a severe cut to USAID’s Global Health Programs and Migration and Refugee Assistance programs, would cut 2019 economic aid to Latin America by a stunning 44 percent from 2016 levels—to $722 million. WOLA staff have been closely monitoring U.S. assistance since 1996. Adjusting for inflation, U.S. economic assistance was never close to that low during any of these past 23 years.

Anti-drug assistance

  • Even as the Trump administration turns up the pressure on Colombia and Mexico to do more about supplies of illicit drugs produced in both countries, it proposes to cut International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) assistance to both countries. In Mexico, this account would drop 44 percent from 2016 levels. While the INCLE program’s effectiveness in reducing drug supplies has long been in doubt, and counternarcotics programs have been plagued by human rights abuses by security forces, the diplomatic message—“you must do more about drug supplies, and we plan to help you less”—is toxic.


  • A proposed 36 percent aid cut to Colombia would come as the country struggles to implement a peace accord, pacify and govern former FARC-influenced zones, and control illicit crop production. The White House budget proposal would squander a historic opportunity to help Colombia avoid a resurgence of criminal violence. We could feel the impact for many years.


  • Aid to Mexico would drop by 50 percent from 2016 levels. This will curtail many recent efforts to strengthen the judicial system, professionalize police, and combat corruption, as well as efforts to improve the protection of journalists and human rights defenders in the country.

Central America

  • Though it is impossible to determine the exact figure from the materials released on February 12, it is clear that the White House would drop aid to Central America by double-digit percentage levels from 2017 to 2019. The timing of such cuts would be, simply put, terrible. They would represent a reversal of U.S. efforts to mitigate the conditions—corruption, violence, and lack of opportunity—that caused over 150,000 Central Americans to migrate to the United States last year.

Other cuts

  • The White House would deeply cut military and police aid programs in the Foreign Operations appropriation—by either 71 percent or 35 percent from 2017 to 2019, depending on whether you count the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program, which can fund both military and non-military aid.

  • Keep in mind, however, that a program in another budget—the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account—provided an additional $230 million in military and police aid to Latin America in 2016. That amount is roughly equal to what the State Department would provide to Latin American militaries and police forces in the White House’s 2019 budget. And it could increase further amid the Trump administration’s giant, proposed defense budget buildup. For the first time, troublingly, the Pentagon—not the State Department—might provide the majority of U.S. military and police aid to Latin America.

  • The White House is also proposing cutting migration and refugee assistance by 17 percent from 2017 levels. This is at a time when when the world is facing an unprecedented movement of people fleeing violence and persecution. There is also a looming refugee crisis Latin America that will only be exacerbated by the current crisis in Venezuela.

  • For the second straight year, the Trump administration is seeking to “zero out” Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Latin America, except for $20 million for de-mining efforts in Colombia. FMF is the main non-drug military aid program for Latin America. While WOLA does not oppose sharp cuts to FMF, we find it remarkable that a Republican administration is proposing them.

While there is healthy debate about the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance, and how programs should be designed and evaluated, U.S. aid responds to important humanitarian and development needs around the world. Overall, it represents a small proportion of the total U.S. budget, and cuts in the foreign assistance budget are not in the interest of the United States. In Latin America, U.S. assistance helps strengthen institutions, enable governments and communities to better fight crime and insecurity, and address the root causes of migration.

Instead of supporting the foreign aid programs that are trying to address the violence and poverty driving people to migrate, particularly from Central America, the White House seems insistent on pushing for cutbacks. Thus far, Congress has resisted the Trump administration’s call to cut State Department and USAID funding. It should continue to do so.

*Maureen Meyer, Geoff Thale, Adeline Hite and Elyssa Pachico contributed to this article.