By Ramon Sahmkow
Washington (AFP) — President Barack Obama will meet three Central American leaders Friday to discuss the surge of children crossing the southern U.S. border without parents or papers, in flight from violence and poverty.
The White House summit will mark the first time since the influx erupted into public view two months ago that Obama has met with leaders of the countries where most of the minors are from.
Presidents Otto Perez of Guatemala, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador, and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras are expected to come with a joint proposal on easing the crisis, officials said.
Hernandez said in a meeting with senior U.S. lawmaker Nancy Pelosi that the problem, which has escalated in recent months, is “deeply rooted” in drug trafficking and the violence it has generated in his country.
“But also 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 added.
An estimated 57,000 unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, have crossed the border since October, a surge that has overwhelmed U.S. capacity to process them.
Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to mitigate the crisis by hiring more immigration judges and border agents.
– Republican resistance –
The request has encountered resistance among Republicans loath to release that much funding without offsets elsewhere.
El Salvador’s Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez said the Central Americans will make a joint commitment to toughen laws against human trafficking and wage an information campaign on the risks of illegal migration.
“We are going with a sense of optimism to this meeting, we are taking a joint position that is solid, that is a concrete Central American proposal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Obama spoke by phone Thursday with his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto, for an exchange of views on “how we can deepen cooperation,” a White House statement said.
“The president noted that these unaccompanied children are vulnerable to crime and abuse, and welcomed Mexico’s efforts to help target the criminals that lure families to send children on the dangerous journey and to alert potential migrants to the perils of the journey and the likelihood that they will be returned to Central America,” the statement said.
Obama also during his talk with the Mexican leader reiterated his assertion that “arriving migrants will not qualify for legalization under proposed immigration reform legislation.”
State Department adviser Thomas Shannon, visiting the region to prepare for the White House meeting, said in El Salvador on Wednesday it will produce a joint plan to deal with the influx through closer cooperation.
Shannon emphasized that “the number one challenge is to convince young people not to leave their country.”
But the U.S. and Central American leaders will also pursue joint strategies to promote economic development and personal security in Central America, he said.
Gang violence and lack of economic opportunity have led parents to entrust their children, including some younger than age six, to “coyote” guides on the dangerous overland journey through Mexico to the United States.
Perez attributed the surge to smugglers telling families that children who make it to the United States will be able to stay.
Obama’s critics blame the influx on his 2012 order to halt deportations of some young undocumented immigrants, including those who arrived as children and have no criminal record.
Some lawmakers want to make changes to a 2008 human trafficking law that gives unaccompanied minors from countries that do not border the United States greater legal rights than those from Mexico and Canada.
Typically, detained unaccompanied minors are placed in shelters or with family members in the United States while courts decide their status, a process that can take months or years.
The 2008 law is at the heart of disputes between Democrats and Republicans that could prevent funding from reaching Obama’s desk before the congressional recess.
House Speaker John Boehner wrote Obama Wednesday urging his “strong public support” for changes to the 2008 law that would allow expedited deportations of Central American child migrants.
“It’s time for the White House to get their act together” and support the change, Boehner said Thursday, adding he hoped Congress could reach a deal before the recess.
Many Democrats argue the law should remain, as it provides children fleeing violence a chance to make a claim for asylum.
House Republicans unveiled their own $1.5 billion draft plan, including changing the 2008 law, while Senate Democrats introduced a counter-proposal that offers $2.7 billion in aid, but only through December 31, and would preserve the 2008 law.
AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards
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