WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. John Cornyn says he does not know if giving financial aid to the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala is helping or not.

Cornyn spoke about a wide-range of international issues during a conversation with Jane Harman, the former U.S. representative from Los Angeles who now heads up the Wilson Center.

“In terms of the foreign aid, I have talked to your outstanding staff here at the Wilson Center,” Cornyn told Harman.

“I think Congress really does not know what works and what does not work. I do not know whether we ought to triple our foreign aid budget or quadruple it, or quintuple it or cut it to zero because I am really not sure what works.”

President Trump has threatened to cut off aid to the Northern Triangle in protest at the large number of migrants from those countries that are seeking asylum in the United States.

“I think the president is looking for some kind of leverage anywhere he can get it to try to stop what he sees as an out of control situation,” Cornyn said. “I agree it is out of control. Seventy-six thousand people showed up at the border last month and we are on track for another 100,000 this month. There is no real reason why that number would get smaller and every reason why it would get bigger. It is clear Congress needs to act.”

Asked what he thought about Trump’s threat to shut down the U.S.-Mexico border or cut off aid to the Northern Triangle countries, Cornyn said:

“I understand the president’s frustration. The frustration primarily is because of our asylum policy. It was started out, as I recall, during the tenure of George W. Bush, where an anti-trafficking piece of legislation was signed into law. It was designed to protect children coming across the border from human-trafficking. Now, the criminal organizations that move people from Central America through Mexico into the United States have figured this out.”

Cornyn said that instead of people trying to “break their way” into the United States, migrants are showing up at the border to turn themselves in. 

“They know they are able to overwhelm our capacity to deal with these asylum cases. Last time I heard, there were some 700,000 backlogged asylum cases. I believe the latest statistics I saw, if you were able to make your way into the United States as either an unaccompanied child, and you are placed with a sponsor in the United States, it may be a couple of years before you get around to seeing an immigration judge hearing your case; or a family unit including children, then you have about a 98 percent chance of successfully staying in the United States,” Cornyn said.

“So, a lot of the discussion we have been having, as important as it is, border security, is sort of beside the point when it comes to the massive flow of humanity coming from Central America. We simply have to figure this one out.”

Harman said she spoke a couple of years ago to Vice President Mike Pence and he confirmed that the Trump administration’s policy was to reduce the “push factor” in the Northern Triangle countries.

She said the idea was to “shore up the capacity of the governments in the region to fight corruption and gangs and to encourage business investment there.” This would help with the creation of more jobs, she said. “That was the administration’s policy. I am not sure it isn’t the administration’s policy. If we cut off aid to those three countries, don’t we undermine the policy?” Harman asked.

Sen. Cornyn responded: “Yes, is the short answer. I think one of the biggest problems we have is reliable partners in those countries. We cannot do for them what they are unwilling to do for themselves. We have tried nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Cornyn noted that the U.S. had success with Plan Colombia. However, he said was because the U.S. had people like President Uribe that wished to collaborate.

“It was over the long haul, it was bipartisan and it is, by and large, a success story, even though they (Colombia) continue to have big challenges there with cocoa production and the cocaine that comes from it. So, there are not a lot of great examples of what works but, again, this is not to be too patronizing but this is where organizations like yours can help us sort through what works and what doesn’t work.”

Harman inferred the Wilson Center was up the challenge.

Cornyn added: “As you know, being a former member of Congress, it is hard to go home and say, we are taking your tax dollars and we are sending them to a foreign country and, you know, we are not really sure if we are doing any good. If you can actually demonstrate with some metrics that you are making progress, I think people will accept that but I think just saying, well, we are sending money to the Northern Triangle, it is a little hard for them to accept given the huge inflows of humanity coming from those countries. It doesn’t look like it is going to get smaller any time soon.”


Asked about the United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement, Cornyn said it could soon be introduced for an up or down vote. However, he noted that trade has become a little “tarnished” in recent years. As a result, he said, it is by no means certain USMCA will be ratified by Congress.

Cornyn is a supporter of free trade. He noted that U.S.-Mexico trade has created five million jobs in the United States, while trade with Canada is responsible for eight million jobs.

“This is vitally important. It touches every state, every congressional district in the country. What I am hopeful for is that Speaker Pelosi will see this as a priority and not withstanding zero-sum game politics, people can look at this as a bipartisan win, working with the administration to get this across the finish line. It is vitally important to my state but I would argue it is vitally important to the United States.”

Cornyn added that Customs and Border Protection officials have told him that $3 billion worth of trade goes in and out of Texas ports of entry every day. “It is a huge amount of money,” he said. 

Shutting down the border

Asked by Harman if the courts could enjoin any move by the Trump administration to shut the U.S.-Mexico border, Sen. Cornyn said: “I hope we don’t find out because it would be so disruptive. Our economy is doing so much better than it has been doing in a long time. This would really rattle our friends and allies.”

Cornyn said he has been “pleasantly surprised” with the policies of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador when it comes to immigration. He said AMLO has been offering migrants from Central America asylum there and work permits. 

“President López Obrador has been working with us with some of the asylum flow, allowing people to claim asylum and wait in Mexico, even offering them asylum there and work permits,” Cornyn said.

“That is a huge, huge thing and if we were to do something that would jeopardize that burgeoning relationship [shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border] and cause them to view us more in an adversarial posture, they’d be less inclined to cooperate.”

Cornyn noted that President Trump has been an “unconventional president.” He said Trump has “good instincts” on regulations and taxes” but acknowledged that “saber rattling on tariffs is causing some consternation.” 

Cornyn warned: “It may even be impossible to get the votes on USMCA. We may not be able to get the votes in the Senate for the bill as long as the 232 tariffs are still outstanding. In Mexico and Canada it will be the same thing.”

Merida Initiative

In the Q&A session, Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, asked about the Merida Initiative. Under this program, the U.S. and Mexico have been sharing intelligence on cartel activity. 

Cornyn said the Merida Initiative has been a success. “We need to work with the López Obrador administration to update the Merida Initiative. We know that a lot of the training that is given to Mexican law enforcement is very important. We know the National Guard that President López Obrador is building and deploying to deal with some of the local corruption issues and the difficulties at the municipal and state level is very important. We need to continue to be fully engaged in that.”

Cornyn said the U.S. was right to expand the Merida Initiative to allow Mexico to use some funding to deal with their own border problems. “I think that was money well spent. We have seen positive results and we need to build on that,” Cornyn said. 

North American Development Bank

Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute, asked Sen. Cornyn about his legislation to provide more funding for the North American Development Bank. Cornyn responded:

For every NAD Bank dollar that has been invested in an infrastructure project, it has leveraged about 20 dollars in total infrastructure investment. Using both private and public sector dollars, and that’s been over the last 20 years. So Senator (Diane) Feinstein and I have introduced legislation that would authorize the treasury department to increase NAD Bank’s capital, and provide additional authority related to port of entry infrastructure- which seems to be a common point of interest on a bipartisan basis.” 

Bracero-type program

Sen. Cornyn was also asked about introducing a guest worker program. The U.S. used to have the Bracero Program. This allowed Mexican workers to work in the agricultural sector on a seasonal basis.

“Having a guest worker program is part of our immigration solution. It makes a lot of sense to me. People do not want to permanently leave their home. They might like to come up seasonally and work in the United States and take that money home and invest it where they were born and want to ultimately stay,” Cornyn said.