WASHINGTON — While President Donald Trump continues to demand funding for a wall to stop migrants from Central America entering the US, a State Department office charged with trying to address the problems that make people flee to the US in the first place has been crippled by the shutdown.
Two employees of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations told BuzzFeed News that their department has been working specifically to address the instability that has resulted in 92,959 asylum-seekers leaving countries in Central America fleeing to the US in fiscal year 2018 alone — but 90% of their staff are not able to work on those programs, according to these employees, with most of the bureau’s staff furloughed and not working.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment because the press team is only responding to issues of human life and property during the government shutdown.
“We work on issues of trying to stabilize other countries. One of the places we work is Central America, which is where all the migrants are coming from,” said a senior official at the bureau, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. “So if we were in our office doing our work then maybe those people wouldn’t need to be coming up to the border.”
The Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is meant to head off the need for US intervention with diplomatic engagement. It was, before the shutdown, specifically conducting analysis about why people are fleeing Central American countries to the US and, based on that research, working on strategies of how the US can help address the instability.
“We are trying to help those places that are not stable become more stable, less violent, so that they don’t need to come to America in the first place,” the official said. “They don’t want to leave. Really, they don’t want to be asylum-seekers.”
Trump has invoked both the idea that migrants pose a threat to US citizens and the idea that people trying to cross the border are part of a humanitarian crisis.
“Over the years, thousands of Americans have been brutally killed by those who illegally entered our country and thousands more lives will be lost if we don't act right now,” he said in his address to the nation on Tuesday. “This is a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul.”
Trump and White House officials have quoted misleading figures in recent months to suggest that people crossing the border pose a significant national security threat.
The State Department officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News said that, even if that were true, effectively shutting down programs that try to curtail the violence and economic disparities driving people to leave their home countries will only mean that more people flee to the US.
“We believe in security too, but there are a lot of ways to get to that,” said the State Department official.
This is not the first time the Trump administration has, directly or indirectly, cut off US support that might prevent caravans of people from coming to the border in the first place. In 2017, the Trump administration cut an Obama-era program that was meant to screen asylum-seekers in Central America before they made the dangerous journey through Mexico and ended up at the US border.
Negotiations to pass a funding bill and end the shutdown are at a standstill as Trump refuses to budge on his demand for funding for a wall, after initially saying in December that he would sign a bill without the funding. Congressional Democrats have said they will not consider any proposal that includes wall funding.
In the meantime, State Department employees around the world are seeing their work, and their personal finances, hurt by the shutdown.