On the run. Refugee children in El Salvador. (Reuters/Jose Cabezas)

Drug-related violence and poverty drive illegal immigration, but spending on these areas to fall by 45%

US President Donald Trump’s 2018 Department of State budget proposal released earlier this week means drastic cuts for Latin America. President Trump’s America First policy translates into US$614 million less in aid to the region compared to last year, with Mexico and Central America  – hit hard by turf wars between drug cartels and structural poverty, two factors that drive illegal immigration to the United States – the most affected.

Experts say deep cuts to foreign aid that would likely end up increasing the number of desperate immigrants fleeing to the US, not reduce it.

The proposed slashes to the State Department’s budget, cutting assistance to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by more than 30%, and by more than 45% to Mexico from 2016 levels, could be modified as it makes its way through Congress.

Trump arrives in Rome on Tuesday. Riccardo Antimiani (AP)

Under the budget proposals, Guatemala would receive US$80.7 million, a 40% cut on 2016, with Honduras and El Salvador, respectively, being assigned US$67.8 million and US$46.3 million, a cut of around a third.

Aid to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama will also be slashed.

The White House insists it will continue to address the “root causes” of instability in Central America

The Trump administration’s proposals, released on Tuesday as the president arrived in Italy, where he met with Pope Francis, will see Mexico receive US$87.7 million in aid next year, a 45.3% drop on 2016. The amount to be spent on security and fighting drug trafficking will fall from US$100 million to US$60 million. Funding to combat corruption will increase slightly, but money for defending human rights and strengthening the rule of law will be cut by half. Aid to help overhaul the armed forces there will fall to less than a quarter. More than 100,000 people have died in Mexico since 2006 in drug cartel-related violence.

The budget appears to run counter to what had been the growing view in Washington DC that, in order to eventually reduce the Central American exodus, the US is going to have to help cut the brutal violence and poverty that are causing it.

Arrivals of undocumented immigrants from Mexico to the United States have fallen sharply in the first months of the Trump presidency. US police detained 15,780 people in April, around 1,000 fewer than in March, the month with the lowest number of arrivals since the year 2000. Experts attribute the fall in numbers, which could be temporary, to the new administration’s tough policies, which have made it easier to deport people without papers.

And whether intended or not, the Trump administration is not sending the most reassuring message to Central America and Mexico.

The cuts will also affect other Latin American nations. There will be no aid to Cuba, which in 2016 received us$20 million in funding for human rights and civil society projects. A us$6.5 million program created for Venezuela to strengthen good governance and respect for democracy also disappears.

Since taking office, Trump has toughened his rhetoric toward Havana, but so far has not made any changes to the diplomatic thaw begun under Obama. He has also toughened sanctions on members of the government of Venezuela in light of the country’s ongoing political crisis.