Secretary of State John Kerry is in Central America Tuesday with a two-part message for the region’s leaders. First, the United States plans to start deporting the thousands of minors who have reached the US from south of Mexico in recent months.
Second, Secretary Kerry will say, please do a better job of convincing your families and children that a futile trip north is not worth the risks.
As he met Tuesday with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala and the foreign minister of Honduras, Kerry said, “It’s not a question of assigning blame” for what President Obama says has become an “urgent humanitarian situation” involving thousands of unaccompanied children entering the US illegally. But, he also cautioned, the US has “rules of law” to enforce, and he asked the Central American leaders to help combat the “false information” in the region that children will be welcomed in the US.
Kerry is in Panama for the inauguration of the country’s new president, Juan Carlos Varela. But outside the pomp of a presidential investiture, the top US diplomat is also carrying something of a “tough love” note to the region from Mr. Obama. It’s because we care about your children, the US is saying, that we want you to help stop them from making a dangerous trip that, even if successful, ends in detention – and soon, deportation.
The White House on Monday said the president would implement an “aggressive deterrence strategy” for halting the surge of children traveling north.
So far this fiscal year, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, have been detained entering the US illegally at the Mexican border. That’s about double the number registered at this point in the previous fiscal year.
On Monday, a human face was put on the staggering numbers of the crisis when Texas authorities identified a decomposed body found recently near the border with Mexico as that of an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy, Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office was able to identify Gilberto Francisco by calling a phone number etched into his belt buckle. Family members reached by phone in Guatemala identified the body by describing the clothing the boy was wearing when he left home.
On Monday, Obama asked Congress for authorization to quickly deport the thousands of minors who have been detained in recent months. The children – most of whom have arrived unaccompanied by adults and under the impression that once across the border, they will be allowed to stay – are being held in processing shelters often far from the border.
Obama also asked Congress to approve $2 billion for increased border security and assistance in addressing the rush of undocumented children.
Republican critics say the crisis is the result of lax border enforcement policies by Obama. But administration officials say the surge in minors crossing the border is not just a matter of enforcement, but also is one of a communications disconnect, with families in Central American countries getting the idea from recent news out of the US that children reaching the US will be allowed to stay.
“Smugglers are taking advantage of misery and providing false hope to young people and to families who think incorrectly that they might be able to benefit from [the] DREAM Act or DACA or from comprehensive immigration reform, neither of which is the case,” a senior State Department official accompanying Kerry said Tuesday.
DACA stands for deferred action for childhood arrivals, an Obama administration memorandum from June 2012 that directs US immigration services to practice “prosecutorial discretion” toward illegal immigrants who arrived in the US as children. But it does not apply to recent surge of young detainees.
In his meeting with Central American leaders, Kerry said the US was looking for “things that we can do together, to work in a cooperative way” to address the crisis in childhood migration. “The lives of children cannot be put at risk in this way,” he said.
The regional leaders assured Kerry their countries are stepping up programs for informing the public about the realities of US immigration laws, while also boosting law enforcement efforts to close down smuggling rings and stop the “coyotes” or smugglers who charge top dollar to take minors across the US border illegally.
But the leaders also spoke of the pervasive poverty and violence in their countries that continue to make many parents think the risk to their children of a journey north is the lesser of two evils.
Another challenge for Kerry and the Central American leaders he hopes to work with is the reality that – at least until a system of more rapid deportations kicks in – the rumors of illegal children being allowed to stay in the US are not altogether untrue.
Under current law, minor detainees are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which, unlike immigration services, is required to act in the “best interests” of the child.
That can often mean releasing the minor to the custody of a parent or other relative living in the US – and sometimes years of life in the country before the child has his or her day in US immigration court.