The last time Central American refugees arrived en masse at the U.S.-Mexico border, Republican Rep. Kay Granger drafted her party’s plan to help those countries stop the violence causing families to flee.
Four years later — under an administration that’s pledged to slash foreign aid and dramatically curb border crossings — the Texan is now at the center of a brewing fight over the future of that type of assistance.
Granger is a senior member of a small-but-powerful congressional panel responsible for doling out foreign aid. She's long championed that assistance as a crucial component of national security.
Though rarely a vocal critic of President Donald Trump's policies, so far Granger is bucking his administration on foreign aid.
"The catch we’ve got is a humanitarian response to these children, but we also have to understand the enormous threats… the violence in those countries that really brings parents and children across our border," said Granger, who GOP leaders appointed in 2014 to chair a task force on the issue.
Refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are once again headed to the U.S. to escape horrific violence in their home countries, risking dangerous trips across multiple countries to get there.
The Department of Homeland Security reported 2,300 children had been separated from their families when they reached that destination in the month of May. The surge in family separations was fueled in part by President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy to discourage border crossings.
Vice President Mike Pence, in a visit to the region last week, asked Central American countries to solve the problem by asking Central American countries' governments to stop their own citizens from coming to the U.S. illegally — or risk losing aid money they receive from the U.S. for peacekeeping.
"When countries abuse us by sending people up — not their best — we’re not going to give any more aid to those countries. Why the hell should we?" President Donald Trump said last week.
Granger has a different view. She's an expert on the crisis in Central America, and led trips to assess the situation first-hand in 2014.
She and her task force assembled and presented a list of solutions to GOP leaders in Washington, including taking a bigger role in stopping the violence in those countries.
"My recommendation was to go to the countries… and say, 'How can we help you with safety in your country?'" Granger told the Star-Telegram.
The formal pitch included increases to law enforcement operations in Central America to help crack down on drug cartels. It also called for additional judges to handle asylum cases in those countries.
“I’m going to try to, in this discussion, make people aware of what we did when I went to the border and saw that,” Granger said Tuesday.
Money for that kind of humanitarian help will be on the line in the next federal budget, which lawmakers must assemble and agree to this fall. The new fiscal year begins October 1.
Trump campaigned on a promise to "put America first" — in part by cutting back on foreign aid.
Democrats are already gearing up to frame the growing border crisis as a referendum on those policies.
“Why are all these people trying to come across our borders? Because they live horrific lives,” Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. told reporters in a press conference Wednesday. "We are complicit in their misery."
The U.S. cut foreign aid to Central America roughly 20 percent over the past two fiscal years, from $750 million in 2016 to $615 million in 2018.
The White House wants to slash that spending much further.
Its budget— which functions as a suggestion to Congress’s budget writers — proposed $435 million for foreign aid to those countries in the 2019 fiscal year.
Granger’s panel has so far bucked the White House's request for drastic cuts.
This month it approved $595 million for Central America foreign aid in the 2019 fiscal year — well above Trump's request. It scrapped a $20 million security and development grant from the previous year, which Democrats pushed to renew amid the ongoing crisis.
"I am willing to invest in stabilizing those countries, but you've got to prove you're getting something for your money," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who chairs the Senate panel in charge of that money, told the Star-Telegram.
The Senate panel this week allocated $515.5 million for Central America aid.
The recommendations will be considered by the full House and Senate. If passed, as expected, House and Senate negotiators will craft a compromise budget, which must be approved by both chambers.
In a hearing with Senate budget writers this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that stabilizing the violence in Central America is critical to U.S. national security. He was skeptical, however, that more money was needed to accomplish that goal.
“We have devoted a great deal of U.S. resources to this,” said Pompeo. “I don't think the region has been lacking for American financial support.”
Senate Democrats unveiled their own plan to help Central America on Wednesday— including restoring the region's aid to pre-Trump levels. They want to use that money to pursue a number of the solutions Granger's task force recommended in 2014.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla, who served on the task force with Granger, told the Star-Telegram Wednesday that those solutions alone hadn't proven effective in stopping the problems.
“I’ve been supportive of [foreign aid], but you cannot also minimize the fact that we have cartels… it doesn’t matter how much aid you give,” said Diaz-Balart, another member of panel that determines that funding.
In particular, Granger said bolstering asylum courts in those countries —something Democrats are proposing in their plan —didn't work.
"We did things that had worked in other countries, that had been successful... but the countries weren’t getting any safer," she said.
Still Granger, a powerful voice in security and defense spending, is pushing her party not to give up on the problems causing families to flee.
“I’m a mother of three, a grandmother of five,” said Granger. “My question was: What could be so bad that I would send my children with someone I’d never seen before, to a country I’d never been to?”
“I can’t imagine how bad,” she said.