Central American presidents meeting with Obama, Biden on border crisis

A mother and child, 3, from El Salvador await transport to a processing center for undocumented immigrants after they crossed the Rio Grande into the United States on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas.

John Moore, Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- 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 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 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, Mr. Obama, joined by Vice President Biden, 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 Mr. 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.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that lawmakers were making "great progress," and he's still "hopeful" they can reach an agreement before the recess, but he said the White House needs to "get their act together."

"This is a problem of the president's own making," Boehner said, "and then he...says that he wants to solve the problem so that we can stop this influx, but then he changes his mind. We've got a president that is AWOL. The president ought to get engaged in this if he actually wants to have something to happen."

Republicans have said 2008 human trafficking law -- which relaxed deportation procedures for immigrants from Central American countries -- is prolonging the crisis by making it more difficult to send children from those three countries back home. Boehner said Thursday, as he has before, that any immediate solution to the border crisis must also include an adjustment to the 2008 law.

Some Republicans have also criticized Mr. Obama's decision to offer deportation relief to some undocumented children living in the U.S. for creating a sense of "amnesty" that drew more kids across the border.

With critics claiming Mr. 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 Mr. Obama sent a team to Texas this week to weigh the possibility of dispatching the National Guard to the border, as Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, has urged him to do.

Under the in-country screening program the White House is considering, the legal standard for youths to qualify for refugee status would remain the same as it is for those who seek the status after arriving in the U.S., officials said, adding that the goal is to deter children who would not ultimately qualify for refugee status from attempting the dangerous trek. The officials briefed reporters ahead of Mr. Obama's meeting on the condition they not be identified by name.

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 that 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.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., 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.

Mr. 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 giving the government more authority to turn kids around fast at the border and send them home.

The Central American leaders have urged U.S. policymakers to consider the humanitarian interests of the children as they debate how to solve the crisis.

""I would like to ask congressmen and senators and those who make political decisions in the United States that they think first in the interest of the child, because the child as well being a human being, is more vulnerable than the adult," Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said in recent interview with Time Magazine.