A couple of Honduran migrants climb to the top of the U.S. border fence to look inside the United States to San Diego, from Tijuana, Mexico, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. Credit: Daniel Ochoa de Olza | AP

President Donald Trump confirmed Friday that he continues to ignore a crucial lesson from his departing Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. That lesson is that the United States remains strong by staying engaged in the world, not by pulling back and focusing only on our own interests.

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter earlier this month. “While the U.S. remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

In a Friday morning tweet, the president said the U.S. would be cutting off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, because these central American countries aren’t doing enough to stop their people from coming to the U.S.

“Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are doing nothing for the United States but taking our money,” Trump tweeted. “Word is that a new Caravan is forming in Honduras and they are doing nothing about it. We will be cutting off all aid to these 3 countries — taking advantage of U.S. for years!”

The president has long demonized many immigrants to the United States, especially those coming from poor countries or countries wracked with civil unrest and war. Like refugees before them, many hope to come to America for a better and safer life.

If the U.S. wants to stop this migration, it must continue to work to improve living and economic conditions in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Turning our backs on such countries will only make the refugee crisis worse, say foreign policy experts like Laurence Pope, a former ambassador and foreign service officer who served as charge d’affaires in Libya after the Benghazi attacks, who lives in Portland.

“The conditions in Central America that generate these desperate families of migrants can only be alleviated by sustainable economic development, the goal of American assistance,” Pope wrote in an email to the BDN. “Threats to cut it off will only create more desperate people, making the problem at the border worse.”

U.S. investment in the three countries is small relative to overall federal spending. The U.S. send $180 million to Honduras, $257 million to Guatemala and $118 million to El Salvador in aid in 2017, according to USAID data. Israel, by contrast received nearly $3.2 billion in U.S. aid last year. Afghanistan received more than $5.7 billion in 2017.

A key goal of foreign aid is to improve economic conditions in the countries that receive that aid, says Kristin Vekasi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine. In this instance, American investments aims to create more economic opportunity for Hondurans, for example, so fewer of them will want to leave the country. Further, there is little incentive for Honduras and the other countries to divert money from such investments to tighter border security in their countries. Instead, if the U.S. stops its aid, these countries will simply have less money to make needed improvements that could improve their economies and decrease violence — and they will blame the U.S. if conditions deteriorate.

“It defies logic to think that [taking away foreign aid] would decrease the number of migrants” from these countries, Vekasi told the BDN.

Of course, logic has long been lost in the debate over immigration and Trump’s desire for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a debate that has led to a needless government shutdown. It will be up to a new Congress to refocus the debate on real workable solutions, rather than demonizing countries and migrants facing economic hardships and violence.