President Donald Trump's decision to cut aid to the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will make a bad situation worse, experts say.
Cutting aid will deepen the poverty and related violence in the three countries, factors that are already driving record numbers to flee, overwhelming the capacity of the US Department of Homeland Security to deal with them.
The State Department has notified Congress of the President's decision to cut aid to Northern Triangle countries. Some US$450 million (S$610 million) worth of aid would be "reprogrammed", the department said.
Mr Trump said on Wednesday: "We're giving hundreds of millions of dollars to these three countries. The money's not going to where it's supposed to be going, No. 1. No. 2, they're taking advantage of the United States. And they have been for years."
The US provided US$103 million in aid for El Salvador in fiscal 2017, 40 per cent of that focused on citizen security and rule of law, says the US Global Leadership Coalition, a network of businesses and civil society groups which support strategic investments in development.
Another US$215 million went to Guatemala to address migration challenges. And US$147 million was provided to Honduras, roughly half of which was for promoting security, human rights, and governance.
The decision to suspend aid has drawn wide bipartisan backlash.
American aid offered a "great return on investment", said Republican congressman Michael McCaul, a ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "We've got to stabilise these areas, and if we don't, it's just going to get worse and it's not going to help the immigration situation," he said.
Democrat senator Ben Cardin, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the move "reckless and counter-productive", adding: "I have no doubt that gangs, cartels, and corrupt officials will celebrate this decision."
Ms Liz Schrayer, president of the US Global Leadership Coalition, said US aid to Central America is "an investment in our national security. (Suspending aid) will only exacerbate the root causes driving people to flee their homes - brutal violence, hunger, and instability".
A federal employee who has worked on aid programmes in the region said it would be better to provide even more aid than stop it completely. "One can always criticise aid, but we are doing good work," he told The Straits Times on condition of anonymity. "The choice is whether to keep doing the same thing or better, or arm the border."
Meanwhile, the possibility that Mr Trump will close some part of the border has made many nervous.
"If Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States through our Southern Border, I will be CLOSING the Border, or large sections of the Border, next week," he tweeted last Friday.
From avocados to auto components, some US$ 1.5 billion worth of goods move across the land border every day. Closing the border would be a "calamity", the US Chamber of Commerce warned.
About 37 per cent of the imported and component parts used in US-made cars come from Mexico. These were worth US$59.4 billion last year. The US last year also imported nearly US$2.1 billion worth of avocados, a Reuters report quoted research analyst Stefan Oliva as saying.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said closing the border was not a first choice, and that Mr Trump "is not working on a specific timeline".