The Trump administration said Saturday that it intends to end foreign assistance programs for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, a move that Democrats called "reckless" and "counterproductive" in addressing the problems that cause people to flee to the U.S.
A State Department spokesperson said that "at the Secretary's instruction, we are carrying out the President's direction and ending FY 2017 and FY 2018 foreign assistance programs for the Northern Triangle," a term that refers to the three countries.
The spokesperson said "we will be engaging Congress as part of this process," which could mean it needs Congress' approval to end funding.
The aid affects nearly $500 million in 2018 funds and millions more left over from the previous fiscal year. The money was destined for Central America but had not been spent yet,the Washington Post reported.
A senior Democratic aide involved in the discussions said they consider the cuts outside the law and unconstitutional and that they would need Congressional approval.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is the top Democrat on the Republican-chaired Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, called the decision "irresponsible" and "reckless" and he urged Democrats and Republicans to reject it.
"U.S. foreign assistance is not charity; it advances our strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens," Menendez said. "This latest reported move shows the Administration still does not understand that the United States cuts foreign aid to Central America at our own peril."
Crime and violence in the three Central American countries are seen as motivating thousands of people to flee and seek asylum in the United States. Some have advocated that more aid, not less, to the Central American countries would help ease the pressures on people to leave for Mexico and the United States.
The senior Democratic aide said, "The Administration can propose rescissions, but implementation requires Congressional approval."
In the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974, Congress in that law reasserted its budget authority after President Richard Nixon's impoundment of congressionally appropriated funds, according to the House website.
Menendez said in Saturday's statement that cutting aid to the countries would be a step backward.
"But instead of doing our part to help stabilize the situation in the Northern Triangle and stem the flow of children and refugees to our borders, President Trump reportedly wants to make matters worse by blocking resources for programs that get to the root causes of this humanitarian crisis," he said.
President Donald Trump has said he would cut off aid to the three nations in the past, and in apparent frustration over immigration issues warned Friday he would shut down the U.S.-Mexico border "if Mexico doesn't immediately stop ALL illegal immigration coming into the United States."
Trump's comments Friday came after a morning of blaming Democrats for weak U.S. immigration laws. He tweeted that he would close the border, "or large sections of the Border, next week" unless Mexico took immediate action.
Trump continued to tweet about it Saturday, saying "Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA" and "our detention areas are maxed out."
"Next step is to close the Border!" Trump tweeted.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a nonprofit business lobbying group, estimates the U.S. and Mexico trade about $1.7 billion in goods daily. The organization told the Associated Press Friday that closing the border would be an "unmitigated economic debacle."
Democrats on a Congressional visit to El Salvador also criticized the Trump administration's decision, saying they are "extremely disappointed."
"The President's approach is entirely counterproductive. It will only result in more children and families being forced to make the dangerous journey north to the U.S.-Mexico border," they said in a statement.
The delegation was comprised of Reps. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash.; and Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.
"We will work with our colleagues in Congress to do everything in our power to push back on the President's misguided approach to Central America," they said in the joint statement.