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Congressional Delegation Tours Central American Nations At Center Of Migrant Crisis


We're going to begin the program today at the U.S.-Mexico border, where a group of U.S. lawmakers spent the day visiting border control facilities in McAllen, Texas. It's the last leg of a multiday trip which included visits to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the so-called northern triangle. The group of 13 lawmakers, which includes one Republican, is trying to understand why so many migrants are fleeing these countries and what the U.S. can do to help.

Just last month, Guatemala signed a safe third country agreement with the U.S. under economic pressure from President Trump. The agreement would require asylum-seekers traveling through Guatemala to seek asylum there rather than in the U.S. The agreement is controversial in both the U.S. and Guatemala, and the country is in the midst of a presidential election. And, of course, many Democrats are deeply critical of the Trump administration's approach to immigration policy, which they call inhumane and illogical.

Congressman Henry Cuellar is a Democrat from Texas. He's one of the Democrats who's advocated compromise with the administration. His district covers a large stretch of the Texas border with Mexico. Congressman Cuellar was one of the lawmakers who's been on this multiday trip, and he's with us from McAllen, Texas. And he's actually on his way to the airport now.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. It's good to speak with you again.

HENRY CUELLAR: It's a pleasure to be with you again.

MARTIN: Let me start with where you are now. And we can talk about the push factors leading to people trying to migrate, you know, later. But just the facilities themselves have been a flashpoint between a lot of activists and many Democrats and the administration. Can you just briefly tell us what you saw?

CUELLAR: Right. Well, we started off with the Border Patrol processing centers. As you know, the border processing centers were set up years ago to handle a smaller amount of people, and they were usually male adults who were coming in. And now they have to handle unaccompanied kids. They have to handle male adults. They have to handle also the family unit. So they're not set up to handle all those three types of individuals plus the larger, larger amount that they're handling.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the rest of your trip. As I mentioned, you visited three countries. You talked to officials there. Can you just - I know that you covered a lot of ground, but, you know, overall, can you summarize what the officials said about why they think so many people are trying to leave? And what do they think about this safe third country agreement? Do they think that that's viable?

CUELLAR: Of course, a lot depends what they're going to put in that agreement. So they're all looking to see what's going to be in there, what sort of agreement, if they can reach an agreement on it. So there are questions about that. Now, the conditions - there are issues with poverty. There are issues with crime. There is issues with, you know, corruption also. And this is why the funding that we started in 2014 is so important.

The president in March of this year put a freeze on several years of funding. So he's stopping right now $1.1 billion of funding that can go to Central American areas, either to fight crime - and, by the way, there are some countries that have cut their murder rates by almost 50% - 50% they've lowered that. So they've had some good successes, but they need to do more to strengthen the judiciary, provide social and educational services and especially agriculture because there have been issues with droughts.

And where they have issues with drought, that means the farmers cannot make a living, and they're leaving. Coffee prices are one of the lowest in 13 years. So when you have droughts and you have coffee prices going down in those countries, then you will see that a lot of those people are coming from the rural areas - are coming over to find jobs in the United States.

MARTIN: As I mentioned - that Guatemala is actually in the middle of an election. The current president is term-limited, and there are two candidates who are in the front-running candidates to succeed him. I don't know if you had a chance to visit with either of them. Both of them have criticized the safe third country deal, but it looks as though that they're going to inherit it. What are people saying about that? If you had a chance to visit with these candidates, what did they say about the agreement and whether they think that they can honor it? And are they willing to honor it?

CUELLAR: My understanding is that they have a lot of questions as to whether Guatemala has the capacity to do a third safe country. You know, the general polls from the population is that they do not support the third safe country.

MARTIN: And can I ask you - Congressman, obviously you've been thinking about this for a long time, and your district is along the border. Did you learn anything new? Is there anything that you saw there that changed your thinking in any way?

CUELLAR: Well, I think it's the push factors that we're interested in. We got some reports as to what - you know, the successes. Because I question - because I was involved and - with the other colleagues to do the funding in 2014 for Central America. And one of the things that I saw - you know, we always question whether we could do enough - I mean, whether we're getting a bang for the dollar.

But actually, there's some real good results. You know, when you reduce the murder rate in half - and actually, Honduras, which was one of the most dangerous areas, has a lower crime rate than several cities in the United States. I mean, so they've done a good job at reducing the murder rate - you know, the gangs, the MS-13. So there's a lot of issues that they have. So the funding that we provided actually has had some positive results. And this is why I think it was very uniform in every three countries that the funding that the administration stopped in March of 2019, which is about $1.1 billion, is going to actually get more people to come over here than what we want to see over here.

MARTIN: Well, so what do you think the priorities should be, especially for Democrats, when Congress comes back for its legislative session in September?

CUELLAR: Well, we certainly have to come up with a compromise on homeland appropriation because, as you know, that is one of the most contentious if not the most contentious piece of legislation. And therefore, we're not going to be able to address the border. And, you know, and the president just has to be more willing to find a consensus because the only thing he thinks about the border is the wall, which is a 14th-century solution. And we've just got to do better than just say put a wall, put a wall, put a wall.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Henry Cuellar. He was kind enough to join us from McAllen, Texas, where he and 12 other lawmakers have just concluded a multiday trip through three countries - Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - concluding in McAllen, Texas.

Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

CUELLAR: Thank you so much, and have a wonderful day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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