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Lawmakers Still Waiting Official Word About Trump's Aid Cuts To Central America


President Trump says he has cut off payments to three Central American countries - Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. He accuses them of failing to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S. But some lawmakers are still waiting for details, pointing out that the president can't just reprogram money with a tweet. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Dafna Rand of the aid group Mercy Corps has been fielding frantic calls from her colleagues in Guatemala. But she's not sure what to tell them about the fate of their programs. She hasn't received any official word about the president's decision to cut aid to Central America.

DAFNA RAND: Mercy Corps has been working in this region of the world since 2001. We have deep and broad roots. We're right now focused on Guatemala. So we were all caught by surprise. And we're just scrambling to figure out what this means for our work.

KELEMEN: Mercy Corps runs two U.S.-funded programs to promote agricultural development and to stem violence, dealing with some of the root causes of migration. Rand points out that most U.S. aid goes through private groups like hers, not to the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

RAND: There's a perception that this is foreign assistance going into the coffers of the highest leadership of these countries in Northern Triangle. But in fact, you know, upward of 75 percent of this economic support funding, the development assistance, goes to organizations like ours who work directly with the people. And this is really the long-term solution. It's a thorny problem. And these are - the solutions are not going to emerge overnight.

KELEMEN: President Trump, though, doesn't give that sort of nuanced view when he talks about U.S. assistance. This week, he said he's cut off payments because the aid was not working to stem the flow of migrants to the U.S.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: You know, we pay hundreds of millions of dollars to Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador as a combination. And what do they do? They don't do anything for us. You know, it's supposed to be money well spent. I understand the reason for it. But that money doesn't get there.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino says $450 million will be reprogrammed. And that number could rise as officials look at what money hasn't yet been spent from the 2017 budget.


ROBERT PALLADINO: The president's decision is clear. And the secretary of state has ordered us to march forward. We were going to continue to do that.

KELEMEN: He says the department has been consulting Congress. But Senate Appropriations Committee members are still waiting for a response to a list of detailed questions they have about the cuts. Some sources say the State Department seemed caught off guard by the president's move, unable to offer details.

Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America says there's been growing bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for these programs.

ADRIANA BELTRAN: Congress, at the end of the day, has the power of the purse. And I do foresee a battle between the administration and Congress over the assistance to Central America.

KELEMEN: Beltran has been monitoring U.S. assistance to the region and says there is room for improvement. But she adds it's counterproductive to simply gut the aid.

BELTRAN: We do want to ensure that aid is effective, that we are targeting it to the right areas and that we ensure that we're not providing support to corrupt governments. That's one of the reasons why the assistance also includes very strict conditions.

KELEMEN: One Texas lawmaker, Michael McCaul, is just back from the region. And he says he and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have actually been talking about strengthening, not cutting, the Central American security initiative.

MICHAEL MCCAUL: We've got to stabilize these areas. And if we don't, it's just going to get worse. And it's not going to help the immigration situation. It's just going to get worse.

KELEMEN: Speaking at the Wilson Center earlier this week, McCaul said the U.S. aid programs are a, quote, "great return on our investment." 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.