President Barack Obama is summoning Central American leaders to the White House to discuss the influx of young immigrants from their countries to the U.S., hoping to show presidential action even as Congress remains deeply split over proposals to stem the crisis on the border.
The meeting comes as the administration is considering creating a pilot program giving refugee status to young people from Honduras, White House officials said Thursday. The plan would involve screening youths in their home country to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. The program would be limited in scope and would start in Honduras but could be expanded to include other Central American countries.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, speaking Thursday in Washington, said he hadn't heard about the plan but expected it to come up Friday. He said the three Central American nations have sought to pursue a unified approach. "We expect that the solution to this problem also is equal for the three countries," he said.
Besides Molina, Obama was to host Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and El Salvador's President Salvador Sanchez Ceren on Friday, the day after they met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are considering Obama's requests for emergency funds and additional authority to send unaccompanied children back to their home countries more quickly. Those lawmakers appear unlikely to resolve their differences on either front before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess.
With critics claiming Obama's own policies triggered the crisis, the president has been eager to demonstrate an aggressive approach to reducing the flow of immigrants and returning those found not to have a legitimate claim to stay here. The U.S. has mounted a communications campaign to inform Central American residents that they won't be allowed to stay in the U.S., and Obama sent a team to Texas this week to weigh the possibility of dispatching the National Guard to the border.
More than 57,000 minors have arrived since October, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The trio of nations has become one of the most violent regions in the world in recent years, with swaths of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.
In recent weeks the number of children being apprehended daily has fallen by roughly half, but White House officials said seasonal patterns or other factors unrelated to the administration's efforts may be to thank for some of the decline.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with the Guatemalan and Honduran presidents Thursday. He said he was impressed by what the leaders were doing to crack down on human trafficking. Yet he said he also made clear the responsibility those governments had to follow through as the U.S. considers sending more money to Central America to help address the problem.
"We need to know that our commitment is matched by equal commitments and funding from the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras," Menendez said.
Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending, but lawmakers were looking at cutting that number down significantly. At the same time, Republicans said they wouldn't agree to any money without policy changes to give the government more authority to turn kids around fast at the border and send them home.
The White House said that behind the scenes, officials were quietly speaking with members of Congress about legislative proposals to change the 2008 trafficking victims law. But officials said the administration had major concerns about a bipartisan proposal being floated because it would create restrictions on judicial proceedings for children detained that would undercut their due process and humanitarian rights.