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The Trump administration is trying everything to stop Central American asylum seekers from crossing the southern U.S. border. That includes convincing them to stay home. This week, a delegation from Homeland Security visited El Salvador to talk about improving conditions in order to reduce illegal immigration to the U.S. With rampant crime and joblessness there, it is a work in progress. NPR's John Burnett reports from San Salvador.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: In the ornate hall of honors, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan stood before a gaggle of local journalists to sign an agreement with the president of El Salvador.
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KEVIN MCALEENAN: Thank you, President Bukele, Minister Hill, Minister...
BURNETT: Both countries pledged to work together to lower crime and generate jobs and try to reverse the historic flow of Salvadorans to the United States. El Salvador's popular new president, Nayib Bukele, former mayor of the capital city, said he would measure success by this metric.
PRESIDENT NAYIB BUKELE: Not people fleeing our country because they feel unsafe or that they are being threatened by gangs or because they cannot find a job or because of the both - of both reasons. So we're very happy with this agreement.
BURNETT: El Salvador, which is slightly smaller than New Jersey, has traditionally sent the most immigrants to the U.S. from Central America. And the government has historically ignored the outflow. After all, remittances sent home from Salvadorans account for a fifth of the economy. The Trump administration has been engaging with the countries of the Northern Triangle - El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - to get them to do more to curtail outmigration. Kevin McAleenan in an interview praised Bukele's first three months in office.
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MCALEENAN: They've already taken steps to address human smugglers, for the first time making arrests of those that are preying on vulnerable populations and smuggling migrants toward our border. That's a big, new important step.
BURNETT: In a banner headline guaranteed to please the visiting bigwigs from Washington, yesterday, El Diario de Hoy trumpeted the government's seizure of assets - houses, cars and bank accounts - of 25 human smugglers. What's more, a DHS official at the U.S. Embassy confirmed that El Salvador has formed its first-ever Border Patrol. When it's fully activated, 200 agents will be watching border crossings and smuggler's trails.
These initiatives can't hurt the country's standing with the impetuous U.S. president. When Trump saw the migrant caravans heading to Tijuana last March, he cut off tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid to the Northern Triangle. In El Salvador, much of that U.S. funding goes to help create jobs for youth so they won't decide to migrate.
CARLOS HENRIQUEZ CONSALVI: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "It's a totally contradictory policy," says local author and journalist Carlos Henriquez Consalvi. "Instead of helping the Northern Triangle countries, what does Trump do? He cuts our aid."
El Salvador has been boasting of its success in driving down its homicide rate. Murders peaked in 2012, when San Salvador was known as one of the world's most murderous cities. But the encouraging figures are cold comfort to citizens who continue to live at the mercy of criminals.
OLGA CORONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Olga Coronado sat despondently with her 12-year-old, Jose David (ph), at the country's official migrant repatriation center. Mexican immigration agents caught them and sent them back by bus yesterday.
CORONADO: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: She says she fled her town of Nuevo Lourdes when local hoodlums demanded $50 every two weeks from her pupusa stand. These are stuffed corn tortillas, a staple of a Salvadoran diet. They threatened to murder Jose David if she didn't pay up. Olga Coronado says she plans to try again to reach her sister in Houston. Despite the incipient hope of the new U.S.-Salvadoran accord, she sees migration as her only option to survive.
John Burnett, NPR News, San Salvador.
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