MEXICO CITY – U.S. foreign policy in Central America has long been a considered a two-way street. America provides aid to promote stability, economic progress and reduce violence. In return, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are supposed to reduce illegal immigration.
Last week, President Trump suggested that America isn't getting what it paid for: "When countries abuse us by sending their people up, not their best people, we are not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we? Why should we?"
As a fresh wave of refugees from the so-called North Triangle reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump isn't the only one asking if Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are keeping their end of the bargain.
"The violence is bad, the conditions horrible, but at the same time it is not the responsibility of the U.S.A. to solve all the problems of other countries," says Ana Quintana, executive director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
Over the past decade, U.S. taxpayers have provided $1.5 billion in aid to El Salvador, $1.4 billion to Guatemala and $1.1 billion to Honduras, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Yet according to the thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S., all three countries remain mired in poverty and beset by gang and drug violence. Corruption, they say, has never been worse.
"In Honduras we just can't live anymore because of the gang," says Mirna Ruiz, who has fled her home nation and is currently in Tijuana. "We can't even go shopping because we are afraid."
Vice President Pence met with leaders of all three nations Thursday in Guatemala and told them the U.S. expects to see them do more to control their own borders. And while President Trump proposed cutting their aid in next year's budget, many Democrats think that’s a mistake.
"We are working on infrastructure in the Northern Triangle," Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., told reporters last week at an immigrant detention center outside of San Diego. "Let's continue that policy, let’s continue to help them in their own country."
Addressing the root causes of illegal immigration is a long-term proposition. Advocates say it would cost more in the long run to abandon Central America now.
Others argue it's time to demand more accountability. Historically foreign aid budgets have passed through Congress with little debate. Congressional committees rubber-stamped State Department requests, and the gravy train continued.
Immigration from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala increased by 25 percent between 2007 and 2015, compared to just a six percent increase in arrivals from Mexico, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data. In 2011, 42,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended from those three countries combined. Last year, the number of apprehensions had skyrocketed to 163,000 — 50,000 more than apprehensions of people from Mexico.
And while these immigrants tell Border Patrol agents and asylum officers they are being persecuted at home, surveys of recently deported immigrants from those countries admit 95 percent went to the U.S. for work, not because of violence.
"The United States is not and should not be in a position to be complacent and accept countries who are not fulfilling their obligations," says Quintana. "Until there is a serious focus by the administration, a serious focus by Congress to really delve into this we are not going to see the crisis at the border stop."