President Barack Obama told the leaders of three Central American countries that they share with the U.S. responsibility for stopping the wave of children fleeing to the U.S. border.
Obama said his administration is committed to helping Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador boost security and economic development as part of a broader strategy to discourage families from sending children on a dangerous trip through Mexico and into the U.S.
While expressing empathy for migrants fleeing crime and poverty, Obama said after a meeting today at the White House, “I also emphasized to my friends here that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at great risk and putting their families at great risk.”
The White House meeting with Presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador took place against the backdrop of what the administration has called a humanitarian crisis at the border and a stalemate in the U.S. Congress over how to respond.
The administration is considering options for dealing with the influx, including sending National Guard troops to the border and setting up a pilot program to evaluate would-be migrants for refugee status in their home countries.
Obama discussed the refugee screening process with the three presidents, while adding that it would affect a relatively small number of those seeking to migrate.
“There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status a family may be able to qualify for,” Obama said. “If that is the case, it would be better for them to apply in-country.”
Such a program “is not going to accommodate a large number,” he said.
The Central American presidents had on their agenda asking the U.S. to increase security aid and investment in their countries. They met with the head of the Inter-American Development Bank about developing a proposal for economic aid, Molina told reporters after meeting with Obama.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived at the U.S. southern border since the start of the fiscal year. Beyond the immediate crisis, the influx has complicated the debate in the U.S. over immigration laws that already had Democrats and Republicans stuck on a legislative response.
The border situation and the logjam in Congress give Obama “broad permission to take what executive action we can to try to deal with the broken immigration system,” senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said today at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with reporters.
Obama asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to examine what actions could be taken and “come back to him by the end of summer,” he said.
Most of the children showing up at the U.S. border are from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, and Obama is pressing Central American leaders to spread the word that they will be apprehended at the border and sent back. He’s also asking them to do more to dismantle human smuggling networks.
Molina said the countries need U.S. help. He said securing the U.S. border is only a partial solution, and he made a plea for help in dealing with drug trafficking and boosting economic growth.
“If we don’t talk about the underlying causes, crises will continue to occur,” Molina said yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If we had aggressive cooperation from the United States, I am sure we could accomplish much more.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who took part in today’s talks, met with the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras last month in Guatemala, where he said the U.S. would provide $295 million in emergency spending assistance.
“When it comes to the immediate solution, we expect the U.S. Congress to help us,” Hernandez told reporters after leaving the White House today.
A Central America with “violence, drug traffic and crime” will be costly for the U.S., while a Central America with strong economies and peace will benefit the U.S., he said.
The emergency funding request is hung up in Congress. Republicans want to give Obama less than half of the $3.7 billion he requested and, because of their differences, lawmakers probably won’t act before leaving for a monthlong recess next week.
One of the sticking points in the current debate is revising the 2008 Trafficking Victims Prevention Act.
The law was intended to protect migrant children from human trafficking by placing them in protective custody and granting them court hearings and a lawyer.
It applies to children from countries that don’t directly border the U.S. and slows the process. Children from Mexico who attempt to cross into the U.S. are often quickly turned back after an interview by border agents.
Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, have proposed amending the 2008 law to speed the return of unaccompanied children from Central America and keep them in federal custody until their immigration cases are settled.
Like the idea circulating in the administration, it would increase the number of refugee applications by up to 5,000 each for El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and require processing for those cases in those countries, rather than have them traversing Mexico.
In the past few days, Democrats in Congress have united in opposition to changing the law, signed by then-President George W. Bush, without congressional hearings.