By Doina Chiacu
U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Tuesday to withdraw funding and aid from Honduras if it does not stop a caravan of migrants that is heading to the United States, in his latest effort to show his administration's tough stance on immigration.
The message, driven home by Vice President Mike Pence who said he spoke to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, could further encourage the Central American country to move closer to China because of what it sees as weak U.S. support.
Up to 3,000 migrants crossed from Honduras into Guatemala on Monday on a trek northward, after a standoff with Guatemalan police in riot gear and warnings from Washington that migrants should not try to enter the United States illegally.
"The United States has strongly informed the President of Honduras that if the large Caravan of people heading to the U.S. is not stopped and brought back to Honduras, no more money or aid will be given to Honduras, effective immediately!" Trump said on Twitter.
It was not clear how Honduras would be able to exercise control over people who had already left the country. Honduran authorities did not immediately respond to the U.S. messages.
Pence tweeted that had spoken to Hernandez.
"Delivered strong message from @POTUS: no more aid if caravan is not stopped. Told him U.S. will not tolerate this blatant disregard for our border & sovereignty," Pence said.
The friction coincides with intensified efforts by Beijing to win recognition from Central American countries that are currently allied with Taiwan.
Hernandez said last month that cuts in U.S. support for Central America would hinder efforts to stem illegal immigration, and welcomed China’s growing diplomatic presence in the region as an "opportunity."
In an interview with Reuters, Hernandez lamented that prior U.S. commitments to step up investment in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador had been scaled back since Trump took office.
Honduras is one of a dwindling number of countries that still has formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Last week, Pence told Central American countries the United States was willing to help with economic development and investment if they did more to tackle mass migration, corruption and gang violence. Thousands of migrants have left the impoverished region in recent years.
The current group making their way north plan to seek refugee status in Mexico or pass through to the United States, saying they are fleeing poverty and violence.
The group more than doubled in size from Saturday, when some 1,300 people set off from northern Honduras in what has been dubbed "March of the Migrant," an organizer said.
Reuters could not independently verify the number of participants, but Reuters video showed a group carrying backpacks and clogging roads near the border with Guatemala, some waving the Honduran flag.
Guatemala said in a statement on Sunday that it did not promote or endorse "irregular migration." Guatemalan police initially blocked migrants from reaching a customs booth, Reuters images showed. The group was ultimately able to cross, said march organizer Bartolo Fuentes, a former Honduran lawmaker.
Trump campaigned for president in 2016 on promises to toughen U.S. immigration policies and build a wall along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Illegal immigration is likely to be a top issue in Nov. 6 U.S. congressional elections, when Democrats are seen as having a good chance of gaining control of the House of Representatives from Trump's fellow Republicans.
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Susan Thomas and Frances Kerry)