Exclusive USA considering cash payments to Central America to contain migration from Reuters

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Migrants arrested in La Joya, TX

By Ted Hesson and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is considering a conditional money transfer program to resolve economic problems driving migrants north from certain Central American countries and sending COVID-19 vaccines to those countries, a senior White House official told Reuters on Friday.

The possible money transfer program would be aimed at people in the northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, said Roberta Jacobson, the southern border coordinator of the White House, in an interview with Reuters, without saying who exactly would receive the money.

Around 168,000 people were picked up by US border guards at the US-Mexico border in March. This is the highest monthly number since March 2001 and part of the steadily increasing number of arrivals in recent months.

“We are examining all productive options to consider both the economic reasons for people to migrate and the protection and security reasons,” she said.

Jacobson did not provide a detailed explanation of how a money transfer program would work.

“The only thing I can promise you is that the US government won’t give out any money or checks to people,” she said.

Jacobson said no decision had been made whether to prioritize shipping vaccines to Northern Triangle countries, but added that the Biden administration was considering how the vaccines could help the troubled economies in those countries. She added that the vaccine issue had remained separate from the immigration discussions with nations.

Jacobson will be leaving the White House in late April, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Friday that she was committed to the role of the new administration’s first 100 days.

In late March, Biden hired Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America to address the numbers of migrants heading north.

The Central American countries had some of the longest waits in America to get their first vaccines. Some regional governments are frustrated with the time it has taken and, with increasing success, turn to China and Russia for help.

President Joe Biden, who took office on Jan. 20, has called for $ 4 billion in development aid to Central America over four years to address the underlying causes of migration.

On Friday, in Biden’s first annual budget proposal, the White House called for $ 861 million for this effort. That number would be a sharp increase from roughly $ 500 million this year.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages foreign aid, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how a money transfer program in the Northern Triangle works.

The United States has historically used USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives to fund work-for-cash programs in post-conflict countries like Colombia. Such programs can include labor-intensive rural road construction projects.

Options for the money transfers include channeling the funds to individuals through international or local non-governmental organizations who would screen them, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Mexico proposed similar money transfer programs as an option in recent meetings with US envoy in Mexico City, a senior Mexican official said.

The Mexican government has piloted such projects to a limited extent in Central America, along the lines of cash grants for the young unemployed and smallholders, an important pillar of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s domestic welfare programs.

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