By Lesley Clark, McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Facing a tide of unaccompanied children pouring into the U.S., the Obama administration will send Vice President Joe Biden to Central America this week to make it clear that the children are not eligible for a path to citizenship and could be deported.
Biden will go to Guatemala on Friday at the end of a trip to South America, and will meet with government leaders from that country, El Salvador and Honduras, the administration said.
A senior White House official attributed the flood of children to violence and a lack of economic opportunity in the region. But the official also acknowledged a “misperception of U.S. immigration policy” and said Biden will emphasize that illegal immigration is unsafe and that newly arriving children are not eligible to earn U.S. citizenship.
“The bottom line is that it’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when at the end of the day there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
Critics have suggested that President Barack Obama’s directive in 2012 to allow some undocumented immigrant children to defer deportation is lure to immigrants. The directive applies only to children brought to the U.S. as minors before June 2007, but critics charge that it has encouraged illegal immigration.
Obama has described the situation as an “urgent humanitarian effort,’ but the administration official said Biden would make it clear that while the children are fed and cared for, “unaccompanied immigrant minors are still going through removal proceedings, just like anyone that crosses the border without proper documentation.”
Most of the children appearing on the border are from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and Biden will meet Friday with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, along with El Salvado’s president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and a senior representative of the Honduran government.
A White House official called the Biden visit part of the administration’s “determination to find a resolution,” noting that it’s been talking with government officials in the three countries for the past few months.
The administration has estimated that 60,000 of the children could cross the border this year. Over 24,000 unaccompanied children crossed the border in 2013.
The crisis has exceeded the capacity and resources of patrol stations in Texas, and some Central American immigrants have been flown to Phoenix, Ariz., for temporary lodging.
The official called the surge of unaccompanied children of “great concern,” noting that some have become the victim of violent crime and sexual abuse. Some of the latest surge of children have been under 12 and many are girls, the official said.
Biden will also discuss U.S. economic and security support for the countries, the official said, adding that the U.S. is looking at ways to help address the violence and poverty that it says are the root causes of the influx of children.
“You can anticipate that the vice president will talk about ways that the United States can enhance its support to these countries,” the official said.
Biden may also make a public address on the immigration issue, the official said.
The stop in Guatemala was added to the end of a weeklong trip Biden is making to the region and comes days after Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake wrote to President Barack Obama, asking him to “send a clear message to those seeking to enter the U.S. illegally.”
The administration official said the White House has had “extensive consultations” with Congress on the issue and that Biden had spoken with a number of senators about it.
Obama this month ordered federal departments to coordinate relief for the children, including housing, medical care and transportation to reunite them with family members.
Biden begins the trip with a stop in Brazil on Monday, where he will watch the U.S. play Ghana in the World Cup. He will also meet with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, who last year canceled a White House state dinner after revelations of National Security Agency spying.
Biden also will travel to Colombia and the Dominican Republic. The trip to Central America and the Caribbean is Biden’s second to the region this year, part of what the White House said is a “stepped up pace of engagement” in the region.