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Why the Real Migration Crisis Is in Central America, Not at the Southern U.S. Border

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President Trump has announced the United States will cut off funding to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that are the primary source of a wave of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, including caravans of families with children. He is also threatening to close the border with Mexico.
 This comes after Trump declared a national emergency to justify redirecting money earmarked for the military to pay for building a wall at the border. 
We speak with John Carlos Frey, award-winning investigative reporter and ”PBS NewsHour” special correspondent who has reported extensively on immigration and recently traveled with the first migrant caravan from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! President Trump says the United States will cut funding to the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador that are the primary source of a wave of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, including caravans of families with children. Trump spoke Friday to reporters.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I’ve ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and to El Salvador. No money goes there anymore. We were giving them $500 million. We were giving them tremendous aid. We stopped payment—to Honduras, to Guatemala and to El Salvador. We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore, because they haven’t done a thing for us.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States spends about $620 million each year for gang prevention programs and other programs that support civil society in the three countries. Advocates say cutting the funds will increase the flow of migrants into the U.S. Trump officials say some 100,000 migrants arrived at the border this month. On Friday, the State Department began informing members of Congress that it intends to end foreign assistance programs to the three countries. This came just days after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen met with regional leaders Wednesday and signed what she called a “first of its kind” regional compact agreement with the Northern Triangle countries focusing on cutting migration and combating criminal organizations. Speaking Friday, Trump also threatened to close the border.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mexico is doing very well because of the United States. And frankly, they have to stop the illegal immigration. We’ve run out of room. We have this ridiculous catch-and-release program where you catch them and then you’re supposed to release them. And you release them into our country. … But Mexico is going to have to do something; otherwise, I’m closing the border. I’ll just close the border. And with a deficit like we have with Mexico, and have had for many years, closing the border will be a profit-making operation.

AMY GOODMAN: On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA. Our detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals. Next step is to close the Border! This will also help us with stopping the Drug flow from Mexico!” he tweeted.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to close the border, but this time his administration says it’s planning to follow through on his threats. On Friday, the Border Patrol issued a notice that it would stop processing commercial trucks at the port of Nogales, Arizona.

All of this comes after Trump declared a national emergency to justify redirecting money earmarked for the military to pay for building a wall at the border. This morning, Trump tweeted, “Democrats, working with Republicans in Congress, can fix the Asylum and other loopholes quickly. We have a major National Emergency at our Border. GET IT DONE NOW!”

Well, to talk more about the possible consequences of Trump’s policies, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by John Carlos Frey, five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter and PBS NewsHour special correspondent who has reported extensively on immigration. In December, he traveled with the first migrant caravan from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

John Carlos, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you start off by responding to President Trump’s threat to close the border, close the ports of entry, close it off altogether? Can the president do this?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, the president does have the ability to do such. I mean, if he can declare a state of emergency and close the border, that’s within the purview of the executive branch of government. But to actually do that isn’t really going to resolve the problem.

The issue is not that people are coming through the ports of entry. These are caravans, primarily, that are filled with people who are seeking asylum. This is a perfectly legal process. They are presenting themselves at the border to border officials, asking if they can make a claim of asylum. We actually have a process by which we allow people to make a claim. Those claims are taken a look at by officials in the United States to see whether those claims are credible—a perfectly legal process.

So closing the border isn’t really going to hurt the caravans, isn’t really going to hurt the migrants who are seeking asylum. It’s only going to hurt the people who come across the border legally. If you go to a port of entry, you probably have the paperwork to get back and forth. So, if he’s closing the border, he’s actually going to hurt people who are coming back and forth with proper documentation. I don’t really understand the process. It seems like an alarmist approach just to bring focus to the border, maybe so that he can increase tension and declare this state of emergency, which really doesn’t even exist.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador responded to the development, saying, “We are going to help, to collaborate. We want to have a good relationship with the government of the U.S. We are not going to argue about these issues.” Your response to what Mexico is saying?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, Mexico is actually a little bit more sympathetic to migration than the United States. They understand that the reason that people are coming through Mexico to the United States is because they don’t have options. So, it’s a smart thing to try and work together. I don’t know why the president of the United States isn’t working with the country of Mexico and with the leaders of the Central American countries, instead of closing the border, sending the National Guard, building a border wall. This is all to sort of seal us off from the rest of the world without actually working with these countries to see what the issues are.

The crisis is not at the U.S.-Mexico border. I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are trying to get into the United States and there aren’t a lot of people. There is a situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. But the crisis is actually in Central America. There are serious problems in these countries. And we have to take a look at why people are coming. That’s where the crisis really is.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go to President Trump threatening to cut off aid to these countries, I wanted to go to El Paso, Texas, where Border Patrol officials said they’re overwhelmed by the number of families crossing to seek asylum, video footage showing hundreds of migrants being held under a bridge, surrounded by chain-link fences, as temperatures dipped in the 40s. Over the weekend, officials said they removed the families, but critics said they just relocated them to another side of the bridge that’s harder to see. Others called the images part of a Trump administration stunt to support the argument that the U.S. is over capacity at immigration detention centers and unable to hold new arrivals.

The ACLU filed a complaint about the conditions, noting the Border Parol’s budget had grown to $16.7 billion in 2019, from $7.1 billion in 2006. The complaint reads, “The detention of migrants for multiple nights in outdoor detention pens is an unprecedented and extreme violation. Although CBP has long violated the rights of migrants in its custody, the agency’s decision to detain migrants, including children, in caged dirt filled outdoor areas is an escalation of this administration’s cruelty,” the ACLU said. John Carlos Frey?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: I mean, Amy, that’s a mouthful. I don’t even know where to begin with what you’ve just read and what you’ve just stated here. We are holding people underneath a bridge. This is the United States, holding people underneath a bridge surrounded by a chain-link fence—these are women and children—you know, for days. I have read reports that people were abused. There were racial slurs thrown at them. They were called “illegals.” Many of these people are seeking asylum; they’re not even illegal.

I don’t understand how the United States can hold people under those conditions. There are protocols. There are regulations, by the way, that the United States is supposed to handle migration and people coming to the United States. Whether they enter with documents or not, we’re supposed to hold them under humane conditions. We’re supposed to feed them properly. We’re supposed to provide medical attention. These are regulations that the United States has on the books. So, by actually creating some sort of a dog kennel to hold people is unheard of. I’ve been reporting on the border for over a decade, and I’ve never heard of such a thing.

I don’t know if we’re at capacity; I don’t have access to that information. But this is a phenomenon that happens every year. There is a surge around this time of the year of migration. It’s not more people than we’re used to seeing, record numbers we used to see back in early 2000s, 1.6 million people in the year of 2000. We’re at about 600,000 people right now. So the fact that we’re at capacity doesn’t quite make sense, because we’re at about a million less apprehensions than we were about 20 years ago.

So, if you’re a Border Patrol agent or if you’re CBP, you’re going to know that there’s going to be a surge in the spring. That’s when most people come. They come before it gets too hot. And, you know, you put your personnel at the border accordingly, and you make room. This is their job, to manage the border, to manage migration. And the fact that they’re having to hold them under the bridge is either incompetence or it’s the administration trying to create some sort of false drama that there’s an emergency or that there’s a crisis. I really don’t understand the way that this administration is managing the border. It’s shameful.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, talk about Trump saying he’s going to cut off aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.


AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this? I mean, some might argue that the support the U.S. government, from President Obama’s administration through Trump, has given to Honduras and what many call the illegitimate government of JOH, of Juan Orlando Hernández, has helped to lead to this crisis of Hondurans leaving the country. What about the significance of where this money was going and what it would mean if it’s cut off?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: It’s my understanding that the Obama administration signed a deal with the Central American countries—Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—to provide an aid assistance program to the tune of about a billion dollars. These are programs that are funded by the United States and implemented by the United States. This isn’t money that is dumped into the country, and isn’t money that’s handed over to the governments. These are U.S. workers who are working alongside these countries, trying to implement programs such as entrepreneurship, trying to mitigate crime caused by gang violence, even some assistance for food programs. These are programs that are actually money going to programs that are managed by the United States. So, it’s kind of a false assumption to believe that we’ve actually dumped, I think the president said, $500 million, and we haven’t received anything back from it, we’re not getting anything back from it.

These programs are in place to keep people in these countries. The reason that people are coming is because there’s no jobs; there’s no food—there’s a crisis there, as well; there’s extreme violence; yes, the governments are corrupt. So people are fleeing. So, the money that the Obama administration has given is for programs to help people keep themselves in country. I don’t understand what pulling that funding is going to do to keep these people in the country, if that’s what the money was for in the first place. It doesn’t make sense.

AMY GOODMAN: And can Trump cut it off, if Congress voted for it?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: If Congress voted for it, I mean, Congress is the appropriator of funding, so I think that he made a misstatement—what a surprise—that he has already cut off the funding. It’s my understanding that Congress is going to have to approve such a measure.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, I want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Five-time Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter, PBS NewsHour special correspondent, has reported extensively on immigration, in December traveled with the first migrant caravan from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, it’s the first anniversary of the Great March of Return. We’ll speak with the man who inspired it. Stay with us.

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