Lehi • Rep. John Curtis just returned from Mexico, El Salvador and Colombia where he saw extreme poverty, hunger and the results of gang violence — and accompanied a congressional delegation that interviewed presidents from all three countries.

The Utah Republican said the presidents agree on one thing: “The people are fleeing our country not because they want to, but because they are desperate for economic opportunity.”

Curtis said a key to creating such opportunity abroad — and help slow the flow of immigrants to America — is to continue U.S. foreign aid and development programs. But the Trump administration just proposed a 24 percent cut to such assistance and has threatened to cancel all aid to nations generating the most emigrants.

Curtis said Friday that could backfire, and that continuing aid “actually saves us money” by creating stability, avoiding wars and creating markets for U.S. exports. He quoted former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who once told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Curtis made the comments at a foreign policy forum at Thanksgiving Point hosted by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a national group of businesses and foreign policy experts. The forum pushed to continue foreign aid and tried to show how it would benefit Utah.

“Our economy is not the largest, most innovative economy in the world by accident,” said Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber. “It is directly the result of that global world order that the United States created with NATO, with the Marshall Plan.”

He added, “Why would we ever undo that?”

The leadership coalition said nearly 353,000 jobs in Utah — 18.3 percent of the total here — are supported by trade. In 2017, Utah exported $11.6 billion in goods to foreign markets, including $684 million to Mexico.

Curtis, a member of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that if America retreats from giving aid worldwide, China is eager to rush in to fill the void.

“Global leadership matters,” he said. “I emphasize that if we don't fill that role as a country, China will. In every country I have visited … China has a presence and it is trying to change who's leading around the world. And it's not the type of leadership that we want.”

Miles Hansen, president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah, noted that 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States, and “in order to advance American interests in these markets, we rely on repeated investments in diplomacy and economic development.”

He said continuing such efforts “benefits not only our own companies and our own individuals in our own country but it has a leavening effect on the rest of the world.”

Curtis said about 1 percent of the U.S. budget goes to foreign aid and the State Department. “It sounds like we are spending 1 percent of our budget on someone else,” he said. “In my opinion, we are spending it on ourselves…. We are saving, in my opinion, our men’s and women’s lives who would otherwise have to fight battles.”

The congressman said an example of the good America can do in the world through diplomacy and aid was seen from the Camp David accords that Jimmy Carter negotiated 40 years ago between Israel and Egypt, which created decades of stability between them.

“It shows you that we can do hard things,” he said. “It shows you the power of diplomacy.”