By Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The White House is considering a proposal that would allow Honduran children to apply for admission to the United States as refugees or on humanitarian grounds while still in their native country.
It is one of several plans under review to deter Central American kids from making the difficult and dangerous journey to the Southwest border, White House officials said Thursday. If successful, the program could be expanded to include other volatile nations, such as Guatemala and El Salvador.
Under the plan, children fleeing dangerous street gangs plaguing cities in Honduras, or other threats, would be interviewed by American immigration officials and temporarily sheltered in Honduras while their cases are considered.
Supporters of the plan said it would help children who are genuinely in danger and reduce the number of minors traveling along smuggling routes through Mexico. Critics said it would only increase the number of refugees and worsen the current backlog of applications from Central America.
The idea is similar to a proposal from Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, to boost the number of visas by 5,000 for young people coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Of the 57,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended at the Southwest border since Oct. 1, more than 45,000 have been from these three countries. Their numbers have overwhelmed social services and created a humanitarian crisis.
The presidents of Guatemala and Honduras, who were in Washington on Thursday, said changing the U.S. immigration system would be helpful, but insufficient. If the United States wants to stem the tide of children illegally crossing its Southwest border, it should increase investment in Central America to improve security and dismantle drug cartels, they said.
They met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill before speaking about the border crisis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. They are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Friday.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said he appreciated the attention the crisis had brought to economic conditions in Honduras, where 45 percent of the populace lives on less than $1 a day.
But the vast majority of children are fleeing violence and crime, he said. “Where the greatest drug violence lies — that is where the most children are departing,” he said.
Hernandez said he had been working to purge Honduras of corrupt officials and to extradite accused drug lords to the United States. He recently launched an overhaul of the government’s immigration department.
“The old immigration officials were in cahoots with the drug traffickers,” he said.
In the last decade, the United States has poured billions of dollars into fighting drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia through programs such as the Merida Initiative and Plan Colombia. But the money has largely passed over Central America, Hernandez said.
As a result, drug lords “poured into Central America and linked up with gangs in an unholy alliance,” Hernandez said.
“We are picking up the pieces because they all came home to roost in Central America, and that is what we are dealing with,” he said.
Since 2008, the State Department has spent more than $642 million through a program called the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The money went to countries including Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama.
But the program has been too small to be effective, and more money is needed, Hernandez said.
“One dollar of investment in Central America is one dollar invested in U.S. security,” Hernandez said.
Congress is unlikely to open the tap for these countries, said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), who met with ambassadors from Central American countries this week. He said he told them not to expect a flow of money from the United States.
“I said, ‘In case you don’t remember, our government shut down last year'” over a budget dispute, he said.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said his country was preparing to receive the children and families who will eventually be deported from the United States.
But solving the crisis will require more attention and investment from the United States, he said. Among countries investing in Guatemala, the U.S. ranks seventh, he said — below Canada, Russia, and Colombia.
Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Michael Robinson Chavez
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