Obama, presidents meet on immigration crisis

Larry Downing/Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Obama urged the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to do everything they can to stem the flow of migrant children toward the United States when he met with them Friday at the White House.

The president called the meeting with Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras, Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador to emphasize the importance of striking at the root causes of what he has called a humanitarian crisis on the border between Mexico and the United States.

Obama pressed them to do more to persuade their citizens not to make the dangerous journey to America.


He urged the presidents to amplify the public message that most people trying to get into the United States would not be permitted to stay. He also asked the leaders to do more to combat the smugglers who, for a price, are transporting the children.

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“I emphasized that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children,” Obama said after the meeting. He added, “But I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.”

The high-profile meeting came as the administration continued to press Congress for more resources and authority to confront the flood of migrants, especially children, who have crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in Texas in recent months.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied children and thousands more adults with children have crossed the border since October.

GOP lawmakers said Friday they were attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes to address the problem, the Associated Press reported.


Those changes include sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of US immigration judges, and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly.

The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.

A number of Republicans leaving a special meeting on the issue in the Capitol said they wanted to act before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess, the AP said.

‘‘It would be a terrible message; leave town in August without having done anything, knowing that it’s going to create even more of a crisis on the border,’’ said Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. ‘‘Doing nothing in my view means that these children will be sent from the border back to communities like mine.’’

House Democrats called on Republicans to act on the spending bill without contentious policy changes attached that would cost Democratic votes and imperil Senate support.


‘‘We are at risk of leaving here without addressing this issue,’’ said minority leader Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland.

‘I emphasized that the American people . . . have great compassion for these children. But . . . we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk.’

Conservatives also expressed concerns that anything the House passed could become a vehicle for the Senate to attach conditions House Republicans oppose, even including the Senate-passed comprehensive immigration reform bill with a path to citizenship for millions.

On Thursday — in meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington — the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras placed much of the blame for the current border crisis on the United States.

While they said they were working to crack down on drug trafficking and violence in their own countries, they also called on the United States to share in the responsibility for the crisis.

Hernández, of Honduras, pointed in part to “the ambiguity that has been the hallmark of the debate of the reform of the immigration process in this country.”

“Here we have to say that the coyotes, the smugglers, who are very much a part of organized crime networks, perversely have sought to exploit those ambiguities and peddle a mistaken, a totally wrong interpretation to the parents of these children in saying, ‘You can get your kids in the US, we can do it for you,’” Hernández said in his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

He added that while “those coyotes, those smugglers are nothing other than the human face of an enormous criminal monster that has one foot firmly in the camp of the drug lords and in Central America,” the other “second foot is here in the United States under American jurisdiction.”

Administration officials reject the idea that Obama’s policies — including stopping deportations for young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — are responsible for creating any confusion about who will be allowed to stay in the country.

It is unclear whether the White House plans to announce new financial assistance for the Central American countries to help combat the drugs and violence that are causing many of their citizens to flee.

Administration officials declined to say whether there might be any announcements of additional aid after the meeting.

Obama also used the meeting to pressure US lawmakers to act on his request for emergency funding before they leave Washington for their summer break.

That debate over how to handle the migrant children has all but stalled on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats and House Republicans this week unveiled competing proposals for Obama’s request for emergency funds.