Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Dirt bikes and riot helmets are not humanitarian aid

Photo source: CBP.

A year ago, the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), came under fire amid revelations of miserable and unsanitary conditions in holding cells overcrowded with apprehended children and families.

At the time, the U.S. Congress was considering legislation to provide more resources to deal with an influx of asylum-seeking migrants. Legislators included about $112 million for “consumables and medical care” to improve conditions for migrants being held for processing. Over opposition from progressive Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) agreed to approve a bill diminished by the Republican-majority Senate “in order to get resources to the children fastest.”

We’ve now learned that much of these resources didn’t reach the children at all.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a June 11 decision finding that instead of medicines, food, diapers, blankets, and other humanitarian needs, CBP diverted this “consumables and medical care” money into:

  • detention guard services;
  • boats;
  • all-terrain vehicles (ATVs); 
  • motorcycles;
  • dirt bikes; 
  • small utility vehicles;
  • passenger vans for moving detainees;
  • printers;
  • security camera systems;
  • speakers;
  • HVAC upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • sewer system upgrades for CBP facilities;
  • janitorial services;
  • canine supplies and services like dog food;
  • computer network upgrades “to analyze factual information in support of CBP’s border operations;”
  • the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; and
  • “tactical gear and law enforcement equipment, such as riot helmets, and temporary portable structures.”

This is a stunning example of an agency defying the will of the legislative branch and its constitutional powers. The “consumables and medical care” outlay resulted from a long process of negotiation within Congress, and between Congress and the administration—but CBP just ignored it anyway. 

That it even sought, in the first place, to portray the items in the list above as meeting humanitarian needs indicates an agency that either doesn’t know, or doesn’t care, what “humanitarian” means. That’s a huge problem, because much of CBP’s duties over the past several years have been humanitarian. Most of the undocumented migrants its agents have encountered have been children or families seeking refuge in the United States. These spending decisions evidence a lack of basic human empathy that call into question CBP’s management, training, and organizational culture. 

GAO reports that “CBP plans to adjust its account for several of these obligations.” It should do so for all of them, or its management should be held in violation of the Antideficiency Act for so nakedly defying the will of the American people’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

At wola.org: 23 Amazing Things You Can Do for the Cost of a Few Miles of Border Wall

Last week, the Trump administration let drop at least a vague idea of how much it would cost to build its big border wall: 722 miles at $18 billion over 10 years.

That comes out to a very expensive $25 million per mile. Which gave me an idea: what do other items—whether government spending or features of everyday life—cost when expressed as a number of border-wall miles?

We came up with a list of 23, which is here. Some examples:

  1. Jordan Peele made the 2017 smash-hit movie Get Out for a total budget of 0.18 Border-Wall Miles. It grossed over 10 Border-Wall Miles at the box office.
  2. Fully implementing the entire “Illicit Cultivation” chapter of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord—which would do away with most of the country’s coca crop—would cost about 52 Border-Wall Miles.
  3. At the Chipotle franchise nearest to WOLA’s offices, a single Border-Wall Mile could buy 3,125,000 chicken burritos, including sales tax. Laid end-to-end, these burritos would stretch for nearly 400 miles, longer than Arizona’s entire border with Mexico. (Guacamole is extra.)
  4. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.
  5. For budget reasons, the U.S. Navy hasn’t patrolled the Caribbean, or Central America’s Pacific coast, for suspect cocaine shipments since 2015. The Coast Guard has been doing this on its own, with six to ten cutters, that are only able to interdict about thirty percent of known suspected smugglers. It would cost the Navy 17 Border-Wall Miles to deploy a refitted Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate for ten years, as the Navy Secretary has recommended.
  6. The 2017 world-champion Houston Astros began the season with a total payroll of 5 Border-Wall Miles.

See them all here.

Top Senate Republican on foreign aid cuts: “it’s not what is going to occur”

We’ve been voicing alarm about the incredibly deep cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid that the Trump administration has proposed for 2018. When we talk to people in the House of Representatives, they tend to share our alarm about the cuts, which would slash aid to Latin America by 35 percent from last year’s levels.

But when we talk to Senate staff, they generally wave their hands and say “don’t worry about it.”

You can see that here, in this opening statement by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at Tuesday’s committee hearing on the budget with Secretary of State Tillerson. After heaping praise on Tillerson, Corker, with his usual laconic delivery, lets him have it on the proposed budget cuts.

We sat down yesterday in the middle of the Russia negotiations. I took some time out to sit down with my staff, and we began going through the budget that you’re presenting today. And after about five minutes, I said, “This is a total waste of time, I don’t want to do this anymore.”

And the reason it’s wasted time is, I think you know that the budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.

And, I mean, the fact is that Congress has a tremendous respect for the diplomatic efforts that are underway, the aid that we provide in emergency situations, and it’s likely and– and by the way, this happens with every presidential budget, every presidential budget. This one in particular, though, it’s likely that what comes out of Congress is likely not going to resemble what is being presented today.

And so I felt it was a total waste of time to go through the line items and even discuss them, because it’s not what is going to occur.

At wola.org: Trump’s 2018 Foreign Aid Budget Would Deal a Devastating Blow to Latin America

Here’s a new post at WOLA’s site in which I perform serious analysis on something I should normally be poking fun at: the Trump administration’s proposal to cut Latin America’s foreign assistance by 35 percent next year.

Map showing which countries get cut the most

Some observations:

  • Assistance to Central America would drop by 39 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Colombia would drop by 16 percent from 2016 to 2018, and by 36 percent from 2017 to 2018.
  • Assistance to Mexico in the foreign aid bill would drop by 45 percent from 2016 to 2018.
  • Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Homeland Security appropriation calls for new fencing at a cost of $21.2 million per mile.
  • Foreign Military Financing, the main military aid program in the foreign aid budget, would fall to zero throughout Latin America.
  • The military aid cuts may get a boost from Defense Department budget aid accounts.
  • The request devastates independent development agencies.

Read the whole thing here.

White House proposes 38.9 percent cut in economic aid to Latin America

Screenshot of aid table

On Monday, Foreign Policy reporters Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer, and Emily Tamkin shared a draft 2018 budget document (PDF) that they somehow obtained from the Trump administration. It’s a printout of a table showing how the White House would cut economic aid to the world in its 2018 budget request for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

(The White House has not yet sent to Congress a full 2018 budget request in any detail, so this is a preview of what we expect to be released during the second half of May.)

This leaked information shows only economic aid through USAID’s three principal economic and development aid accounts. (These are Economic Support Funds or ESF, Development Assistance or DA, and Global Health Programs.) It doesn’t include some economic and institution-building aid that comes through the State Department’s large International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account. We have no idea yet whether the budget request would seek similar cuts to that aid.

For these USAID programs, every country in Latin America would see a double-digit-percentage cut from 2016 levels next year, if Congress were to grant the Trump administration what it wants. The region-wide cut would be a breathtaking 38.9 percent.

Congress will undo this radioactive budget request—somewhat. But even if the actual cuts end up being half of what is shown here, the impact on U.S. goals, on humanitarian situations, and on specific outcomes—peace accord implementation in Colombia, reducing migration from Central America—will be severe. These cuts are an astonishingly bad idea.

The table shows the economic-aid cut that the draft Trump budget would foresee for each country in Latin America. I suppose we can assume that the countries whose cuts are lower than the regional average are “priority” countries.

Economic aid in 2016 was: The request for 2018 is: That’s a reduction of:
Western Hemisphere $1,083,580,000 $662,081,000 -38.9%
Haiti $177,630,000 $149,200,000 -16.0%
Colombia $133,000,000 $105,000,000 -21.1%
Honduras $93,000,000 $67,100,000 -27.8%
El Salvador $65,000,000 $45,500,000 -30.0%
Guatemala $125,000,000 $79,900,000 -36.1%
Peru $37,300,000 $22,191,000 -40.5%
Barbados and Eastern Caribbean $25,713,000 $15,000,000 -41.7%
State Department Western Hemisphere Regional $209,177,000 $121,390,000 -42.0%
Mexico $49,500,000 $25,000,000 -49.5%
Dominican Republic $20,988,000 $10,000,000 -52.4%
USAID Latin America and Caribbean Regional $28,360,000 $11,800,000 -58.4%
USAID Central America Regional $39,761,000 $10,000,000 -74.8%
Brazil $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Cuba (democracy programs) $20,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Ecuador $2,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Jamaica $4,500,000 $0 -100.0%
Nicaragua $10,000,000 $0 -100.0%
Paraguay $8,151,000 $0 -100.0%
Venezuela (democracy programs) $6,500,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID Caribbean $4,000,000 $0 -100.0%
USAID South America Regional $12,000,000 $0 -100.0%

It’s not just the wall: the 2017 budget has other bad ideas on border security

David McNew / Getty photo at Newsweek. Caption: “U.S. Border Patrol agents carry out special operations near the U.S.-Mexico border fence.”

Even though Donald Trump has put off, for now, his push for a border wall, the budget request that Congress is considering this week includes money to start hiring 5,000 Border Patrol agents and 10,000 ICE agents.

This is as unnecessary as a border wall, and we just posted a new commentary at WOLA’s website explaining why.

I wrote the Border Patrol section. I lay out two big reasons why it makes no sense to increase the agency’s size by another 25 percent.

  1. Undocumented migration across the U.S.-Mexico border was at 40-year lows even before it plummeted further after Trump’s inauguration. This hardly warrants a wave of new hires.
  2. Another round of fast hires could compound Border Patrol’s management issues and further erode protections against corruption and rights abuses.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s site.

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