June 5, 2017 / 10:32 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. budget cuts augur badly for immigration fight: IADB chief

File photo: Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Bank, speaks during a news conference in Managua, Nicaragua April 21, 2016.Oswaldo Rivas

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump's proposed spending cuts for Central America are "not a good sign" for efforts to reduce immigration from the poor, violent region, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) told Reuters on Monday.

Trump's austere 2018 budget proposal, which is unlikely to get legislative approval, envisages slashing U.S. aid to Guatemala by almost 40 percent from 2016. Aid for Honduras and El Salvador would fall nearly a third, according to last month's proposal.

The vast majority of Central American migrants bound for the United States hail from those three countries.

IADB President Luis Alberto Moreno said in an interview that to make a real change in Central America, the United States needed to maintain regional spending of around $600 million for seven years before contemplating lowering its outlay.

"A spending cut is not good," said Moreno, who is a key player behind a U.S.-backed meeting in Miami later this month to uncover new sources of funding for tackling migration. "It's not a good sign."

The Miami meeting on June 15 and 16 will bring together representatives from Mexico, Central America and the United States, among others, to discuss news ways to slow the flow of migrants bound for the United States and improve conditions in the gang-ravaged region.

Critics say much of the United States' current aid money for Central America is heavily skewed toward tackling drug smuggling and gangs.

Trump's tough immigration rhetoric has led to a decline in Central American migrants and migrant detentions along the southern U.S. border, but experts warn the United States must commit for the long term if it hopes for a lasting change in migration flows.

Moreno believes the U.S. government still view migration as a priority despite the drop in traffic.

"People in anguish will always find a way to get there," he said. "It doesn't matter how big the wall is; the ladder will always be bigger."

Echoing statements made by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly last month, Moreno said the money needed for Central America was relatively little compared to U.S. commitments in regions like the Middle East.

Last month, Reuters reported Kelly was pressing Mexico to do more to stem the migrant flow, as part of a fresh attempt to shore up Central America.

Moreno was confident Kelly could convince Trump that spending U.S. money in Central America was a worthwhile endeavor.

Mexican Doubts

A senior Mexican diplomat told Reuters that Trump's proposed cuts had caused alarm among Central American officials.

The diplomat added Mexico feared the Miami meeting would be a failure, with few concrete results other than "good wishes."

The Trump administration had so far failed to communicate what it hopes to achieve in the meeting, the diplomat added, a drastic departure from the administration of former President Barack Obama, which would issue a "conceptual paper" prior to get-togethers so all parties were aware of the desired results.

The diplomat also said a lack of leadership at the State Department, where many key posts remain unfilled, made everything harder.

Moreno denied the meeting was set to fail but said it was impossible the get-together, which aims to deliver a regional "investment shock," would resolve all Central America's problems.

"I think this is a moment to take stock of where we are, and what are the steps we have to take going forward," he said.

Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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