Migrants walk back to Mexico on border bridge
Asylum-seeking migrants from Central America walk back towards Mexico on the International border bridge in Ciudad Juarez. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

The United States is considering a conditional cash transfer program to help address economic woes that lead migrants from certain Central American countries to trek north, as well as sending COVID-19 vaccines to those countries, a senior White House official told Reuters on Friday.

The possible cash transfer program would be targeted at people in the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Roberta Jacobson, the White House’s southern border coordinator, told Reuters in an interview, without saying who exactly would receive the cash.

Roughly 168,000 people were picked up by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, the highest monthly tally since March 2001 and part of steadily increasing arrivals in recent months.

“We’re looking at all of the productive options to address both the economic reasons people may be migrating, as well as the protection and security reasons,” she said.

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

“The one thing I can promise you is the U.S. government isn’t going to be handing out money or checks to people,” she said.

Jacobson said that no decision had been made regarding whether to prioritize sending vaccines to the Northern Triangle countries, but added that the Biden administration would consider how the vaccines could help ailing economies in those countries. She added the vaccine issue remained separate from immigration-related discussions with the nations.

Jacobson will leave the White House at the end of April, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on Friday, saying she had committed to the role for the first 100 days of the new administration.

Biden in late March tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America to address the number of migrants heading north.

Central American countries have faced some of the longest waits in the Americas to get their first vaccines. Frustrated by the time it has taken, some regional governments have begun turning to China and Russia for help, with increasing success.

U.S. 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 underlying causes of migration.

On Friday, the White House requested $861 million for that effort in Biden’s first annual budget proposal. The figure would be a sharp increase from the roughly $500 million in aid this year.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers foreign aid, did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding how a cash transfer program in the Northern Triangle would operate.

The United States has in the past used the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives to fund work-for-cash programs in post-conflict nations such as Colombia. Such programs can include labor intensive rural road-building projects.

Among the options for the cash transfers would be to channel the funds to individuals through international or local non-governmental organizations that would vet them, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Mexico has proposed similar cash transfer programs as an option during recent meetings with U.S. envoys in Mexico City, a senior Mexican official said.

The Mexican government has piloted such projects on a limited scale in Central America, modeled on cash grants it gives to the young unemployed and small farmers, a key pillar of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s domestic welfare programs.