Central American leaders want Washington’s help with immigration crisis

Otto Perez Molina, president of Guatemala, says his government is prepared to accept citizens sent home and suggests that more funding for U.S.-Mexico border security may be shortsighted. (Jeff Simon, Ed O'Keefe, Marlon Correa and Randy Smith/The Washington Post)

Leaders of the Central American nations at the other end of the U.S. border crisis came to Washington on Thursday to discuss the response and placed much of the blame on the United States.

“Your country has enormous responsibility for this,” Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández said in an interview with The Washington Post. “The problem of narco-trafficking generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this [the United States] is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. That’s leaving us with such an enormous loss of life .”

The criticism set the stage for a meeting Friday at the White House in which President Obama and Vice President Biden will host Hernández, Guatemala’s Otto Pérez Molina and El Salvador’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén for a face-to-face discussion of the crisis at the border. The White House said Obama also telephoned Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday to discuss the possibility of “regional programs” that would improve security and the economy in Central America.

More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors and an additional 55,000 parents with children, most of them from Central America, have been apprehended this year.

The Obama administration acknowledged Thursday that it is weighing a proposal to allow hundreds of Hondurans to enter the United States after applying for refu­gee visas in their home country. A senior White House official emphasized that the proposal is one of many policy options being considered and that no decision has been made on that specific proposal.

President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández discusses the conditions immigrants experience as they make the illegal trek across the U.S.-Mexican border, and the plights they face upon returning home. (Nicki DeMarco and Jeff Simon/The Washington Post)

The proposal, if ever implemented, would be a relatively modest response given the scale of the problem: The initiative would provide fewer than 2,000 refu­gee visas to young Hondurans in the first year of what officials described as a pilot program. The New York Times first reported on the potential program, saying it could cost $47 million over two years.

And the proposal would do nothing about the tens of thousands of migrants who have already reached the United States from Central America and have overwhelmed border security operations in recent months. Obama has requested that Congress provide $3.7 billion in emergency funds to combat the crisis, but Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have balked at that price tag. Both the Senate and House are preparing separate plans with lower funding levels.

But in an interview with The Post, Molina said that proposals to boost border patrols are shortsighted and do not address the real problem.

“If they want to attack the root of the problem, I think that they need to think about making investments in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” he said, adding later: “With just 10 percent of the money that you’re investing on the U.S. border, it could be spent at minimum in the three countries and I’m confident that it would be much more profitable than investing it on border security or border control with Mexico.”

The Central American leaders met with members of Congress on Thursday to press their case for more economic assistance. Some Republican lawmakers have called for a decrease in aid to the region, along with Mexico, until those governments do more to curb the problem. GOP lawmakers have focused on strengthening enforcement operations at the border, including calling on the administration to send in National Guard troops.

Administration officials announced Thursday the deployment of a team of military and national security analysts to the Texas border to determine whether there is a productive role for the National Guard in response to the crisis. The move came just days after Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced his plan to send 1,000 of his state’s guardsmen to the border to assist local law enforcement operations..

Molina and Hernández pledged that they are determined to do their part to help curb the exodus of migrants.

Dangerous journeys taken by unaccompanied children

But they also warned that U.S. politicians should not politicize the debate ahead of the midterm elections this fall.

“The United States is in the run-up to an electoral moment,” Hernández said. “I would appeal to the leaders and to American people to understand this is a humanitarian crisis. We are neighbors and will remain neighbors, and it’s best to be friends with your neighbors.”

Hernández said that most of the children coming to the United States from Honduras are fleeing the 30 most violent areas of the country. He said Honduran girls were sexually abused by smugglers, who instructed them to take contraceptives that the smugglers told them were vitamins.

“Please remember we’re talking about children,” Hernández said. “These are human beings. As minors, they are the most vulnerable, the weakest among us.”This should catch the attention and pull at the heart strings of humanity at large.”

The White House gathering will mark the first time an American president has hosted a group of Central American leaders in Washington since 1998, when President Bill Clinton welcomed regional leaders after Hurricane Mitch.

Senior administration officials said this week that each government has stepped up the apprehension of human smugglers and launched public campaigns to discourage illegal immigration since Biden visited the region last month.In Guatemala, the “Quedate” (or, “Stay”) campaign has been led by the country’s first lady, Rosa Leal de Perez. In the interview, Molina said that he thinks the campaign has contributed to the 50 percent reduction in illegal border crossings in the past two weeks.

Since signing an agreement with Central American countries and the Dominican Republic in 2008, the United States has spent about $800 million on security and law enforcement assistance in the region, with roughly two-thirds of the money sent to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Lawmakers and regional experts say that any new requests for aid are likely to be greeted with skepticism.

“There’s deep concern about the violence in Central America,” said Eric Olson, director for the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center., “But people are asking hard questions about what is our money going to be used for?”

Marlon Correa contributed to this report.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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