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Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Defends Aid Cuts To Central America


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on Capitol Hill today defending the Trump administration's decision to cut aid to Central America. Pompeo tried to convince lawmakers that money to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras should be withheld until those countries do more to stop their citizens from coming to the U.S. Some lawmakers said that is backwards thinking, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, says U.S. aid to Central America is meant to address the root causes of migration.


ROBERT MENENDEZ: Why are people fleeing? They're fleeing because of violent crime. Their choice is stay or die or flee and have a chance at living. Or stay and see my daughter raped or stay and see my son forcibly put into a gang. We need to fight at the very essence of that. And the very essence of that is not at our border. It's in Central America.

KELEMEN: But Pompeo argues that U.S. aid programs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are not working. His evidence - the situation at the U.S. southern border.


MIKE POMPEO: You can see it's a fact of this crisis at the southern border that it has not been effective. And so we are endeavoring to change that, right? This is the - we deal in reality. It's not enough to take taxpayer money and spend it there. You need to get something for that, and that's what we are engaged in now.

KELEMEN: The secretary told Senate appropriators Tuesday that the U.S. has stopped allocating new funds until those countries take seriously the need to control their own borders. Some lawmakers see this as a major departure. Congressman Tom Malinowski, a former State Department official, says it's one thing to help these countries deal with the causes of migration. It's another to demand that they stop people from leaving.


TOM MALINOWSKI: Can you think of any precedent, historical precedent, in which the United States has urged another country to stop people from leaving? I mean, we urged the Soviet Union to allow Soviet Jews to leave. We would - we have condemned North Korea from stopping people from leaving its country. We would be outraged if the Maduro regime were to stop people from leaving.

KELEMEN: He was addressing his mostly rhetorical questions to the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development at a hearing Tuesday.


MALINOWSKI: How would this even work? Are we advising the Honduran police to arrest or shoot people if they try to leave their country?

KELEMEN: Fellow Democrat Brad Sherman raised similar doubts, pointing out that the U.S. has seen a dramatic decline in migration from Mexico because things are better there now. He says the same could be true for Central America if aid is used well. Secretary Pompeo, though, has a different priority. He's urging lawmakers to change asylum laws so that Central Americans can stay in Mexico.


POMPEO: I worked on an agreement where we would allow those with proper asylum claims to wait for their asylum hearing - the numbers are overwhelming - to wait in Mexico. And we had a court fundamentally misread the law and deny us the ability to do that. We need your help.

KELEMEN: Today, Senator Tom Udall pressed him on why.


TOM UDALL: Do you believe our country is, quote, "full" as the president has said and that we should not accept any more asylum-seekers or immigrants to the United States?

POMPEO: This is the most generous nation in the history of civilization. It's just the case.

KELEMEN: The secretary of state carefully avoids answering the question or showing any daylight with a president determined to stem the flow of migrants from Central America. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.