US President Barack Obama has summoned the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to the White House next week in an effort to demonstrate high-level cooperation to stanch the flow of migrant children from Central America through Mexico and into the US.
The White House said on Friday that Obama will meet with the three leaders on Friday, a high-profile gathering that comes as the administration struggles to win approval in the US Congress for US$3.7 billion to expand border security, add immigration judges and care for the 57,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived since the autumn of last year.
White House officials said that there is some evidence that the flood of child migrants across the border may be receding. The average number of children crossing the border declined to about 120 per day at the beginning of this week from 283 per day in the middle of last month, officials said.
However, officials say that they do not know if that trend will continue. And the surge of Central American migrants, including the children, has become a humanitarian border crisis and a political headache for Obama, who intends to exert his executive authority later this summer to reduce deportations of illegal immigrants already in the US.
Obama’s critics have seized on the new border crisis as evidence of the administration’s failure to secure the southern border with Mexico. However, the roots of the new surge in migration begin farther south, in the three violence-wracked countries of Central America whose leaders will be in Washington next week.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement on Friday that the three leaders will discuss ways to “promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between our countries in a spirit of shared responsibility, including with respect to the return of family units, which began this week for all three countries.”
That discussion, which is likely to take place in the Oval Office, could be a tricky one for Obama, who has vowed that migrants from Central America and their children who do not have legitimate humanitarian claims should be processed quickly and sent back to their home countries.
In the past, Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and of Salvadorean President Salvador Sanchez Ceren have pledged their support for efforts to stem the flow of migrants north from their countries. In conversations between the three presidents and US Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month, the three Central American presidents said they would work in partnership with the US to secure their own borders.
However, even as Obama and Biden seek help from the Central American presidents, they are under pressure from members of the Democratic Party not to undermine the rights that children have to seek asylum. In a meeting this week, Hispanic lawmakers urged Obama not to give in on that principle.
After that meeting, several lawmakers said that the US president promised not to undermine the migrant children’s basic rights to due process. White House officials have said they remain committed to persuading Congress to provide the US secretary of homeland security new flexibility to allow the cases to be processed faster.
US lawmakers are set to leave soon on their summer recess, and it remains unclear whether the divided Congress will act on Obama’s requests.
Regardless, a White House official said on Friday that Obama would tell the Central American presidents that the migrant crisis could not be solved without the help of the children’s home countries.
“We want to make sure that we have buy-in from the leaders of the Central American countries,” the official said.
Aides said the talks were arranged in the past 10 days, as the crisis drew international attention and protests erupted in several cities where busloads of children were arriving.
Biden traveled to Central America to meet with the three presidents last month, but officials said that Obama decided that the border issue was too complicated and too important to leave to long-distance diplomacy. The meeting in Washington, they said, was intended in part to pressure Congress to pass the funding and legal changes that Obama wants.
“A big part of this is sending a message to Congress that the [US] president is going to work with Central American countries to get something done here,” the White House official said. “Congress should take note of the fact that the president is very serious about this issue.”
Officials said they were encouraged by the news that the number of children arriving in the US appeared to be dropping. According to the White House, 1,985 unaccompanied children crossed the border from June 22 through June 28. That number dropped to 977 two weeks later, from July 6 through July 12, and was 362 in the three days from Sunday last week through Tuesday.
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