President Barack Obama met Friday with three Central American leaders to try to get control of a humanitarian crisis triggered by a tide of child migrants crossing the southern US border.
Obama’s won pledges of support from the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and repeated his appeals to Central American parents not to send their kids north.
Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina, Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras and Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador attended the discussions with Obama.
“We reiterated our commitment to prevent families and children from undertaking this dangerous journey and to work together to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration,” the four said in a joint statement.
They also pledged to pursue the smugglers that prey upon migrants desperate to reach the United States and to “counter misinformation about U.S. immigration policy” that encourages the exodus.
The U.S. president, in remarks to reporters following the hour-and-a-half long meeting stressed that Americans feel “great compassion” for the child migrants, who have often endured tremendous suffering before and during their journey.
“But I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk,” he said.
Obama has sought to pour cold water on the hopes of millions of families in Central America planning to join the tens of thousands of young migrants and their relatives arriving in the United States.
And he warned that many of those who manage to cross the border fail to qualify for longterm residency status.
“There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for,” Obama said. “But I think it’s important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants.”
His Central American counterparts gave no comment to the U.S. media immediately after the White House meeting.
But they have already pinned some blame for the flood of young migrants at Washington’s door.
Honduran President Hernández said recently that the child migrant phenomenon is closely connected to drug-related, as well as somewhat fuzzy U.S. immigration policy.
“It is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity, or ambiguity, that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates on immigration reform in the United States,” he said during a visit to the U.S. Congress on Thursday.
For the White House, the crisis is the visible symptom of a broken immigration system in desperate need of reform.
The U.S. Senate last year passed an immigration reform bill that included a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country, but the measure has run aground in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Now Obama — who made immigration one of the central campaign themes in 2008 and 2012 — finds himself facing midterm legislative elections as the debate over immigration takes a heated turn.
“The conversation has become more toxic and what Obama is dealing with now is layers of politicization of the issue,” said Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution.
Republican Texas governor Rick Perry announced he is sending 1,000 National Guard troops to secure his state’s long border with Mexico.
In southern California, meanwhile, several “anti-immigrant” movements have sprung up. “We want a fence not a reform” and “Return to sender” read signs carried by protesters.
At least 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained on the border with Mexico since October.
The government expects this to reach 90,000 by the end of September, although the total may prove lower because the White House says detentions dropped by half since last month.
Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the influx, but lawmakers seem likely to provide a far lower sum — perhaps as little as a third of that sought.
Republicans also want to amend a 2008 anti-human trafficking law that gives greater legal protections to minors from countries that do not border the United States than to those from Mexico and Canada.
Time for a legislative remedy is running out, however: Congress goes into its summer recess next week, and lawmakers do not return to Washington until September 8.