Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala on Friday to meet with Central America leaders and discuss how they can work together to address the alarming number of unaccompanied minors coming to the United States from that region.
Biden was set to meet with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and high-ranking officials from Honduras and Mexico.
In Guatemala, the Vice President is meeting with regional leaders to address the rise in the flow of unaccompanied children and adults with their children to the United States, to discuss our work together with the countries of Central America, and to discuss our efforts to help address the underlying security and economic issues that cause migration, the White House said in a statement.
In a statement released Friday, Perez Molina welcomed Biden to Guatemala and expressed his willingness to look for immediate solutions to the problem of unaccompanied minors traveling to the United States.
The government of Guatemala believes in continuing to work together with the United States of America in immigration issues, security, the prevention of violence, and economic development, Perez Molina stated.
From October to June 15, an estimated 52,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended along the Southwest border as they made their way to the U.S. That number could rise to 90,000 by the end of the year.
About 39,000 adults and children were also apprehended at the border between October and May.
The vast majority of unaccompanied minors and adults with children are coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The increasing gang violence in those three countries is said to be driving many children and adults to leave their homes and come to the U.S.
On his way to Guatemala on Friday, Biden phoned Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who did not attend Fridays meeting in Guatemala. According to the White House, Biden asked the Honduran president to work in close cooperation with other regional leaders to develop concrete proposals to address the root causes of unlawful migration from Central America.
Bidens visit to Guatemala came a day after President Barack Obama spoke to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over the phone. The White House said in a statement that in the call with Peña Nieto, Obama welcomed the opportunity to work in close cooperation with Mexico to develop concrete proposals to address the root causes of unlawful migration from Central America.
Steps the U.S. will take to address unaccompanied minors crisis
Ahead of Bidens meeting with Central American leaders, senior administration officials held a conference call with reporters on Friday to discuss steps the U.S. is taking to work with Central American leaders in stemming the influx of unaccompanied minors.
Those steps include providing $9.6 million in additional support for Central American governments to receive and reintegrate migrants who are returned to their native countries. The U.S. government is also providing nearly $85 million in foreign aid to fund crime-prevention programs in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Ricardo Zuniga, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs in the National Security Council, told reporters the crime-prevention programs are meant to improve citizen security in some of the most violent communities in Central America. He added that the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico have all expressed a high level of interest in working with the U.S. to address the influx of unaccompanied minors.
In all cases, what weve found is a high level of interest in working with us because they understand the humanitarian nature of what it is that were trying to do, Zuniga said. They all have an interest in making sure that their citizens are well cared for.
In addition, the U.S. government is collaborating on campaigns to help potential migrants understand the significant danger of human smuggling. The campaigns also reinforce that recently arriving children and adults are not eligible for programs, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or the path to citizenship outlined in the Senate-approved immigration reform bill.
Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council told reporters the campaign is meant to counter the misinformation that is being deliberately planted by criminal organizations, by smuggling networks, about what people can expect if they come to the United States.
Part of what the Vice Presidents effort, as well as the administration effort, overall is to make sure that people have accurate information and that we push back on the misinformation that is being spread and which is contributing to this problem, she said.
Muñoz is one of the White House senior officials who joined Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Friday to visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. In a statement released Thursday, DHS stated Johnson would be there to view the ongoing government-wide response to the influx of unaccompanied children across the Southwest border.
Several temporary processing centers have been set up in Texas, California, Arizona and Oklahoma to house unaccompanied minors as well as adults with children who are apprehended while crossing the border.
On Friday, Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters the administration is actively looking for additional space to house more unaccompanied minors and adults with children. He said the department will work to ensure, of course, that the detention of adults with children is done as humanely as possible and in an appropriate setting that meets applicable legal standards.
Mayorkas also said additional immigration judges, ICE attorneys and asylum officers are being assigned to process cases of unaccompanied minors and adults who are currently held in the temporary processing centers.
When an individuals case is fully heard and it is found that the individual does not qualify for asylum, he or she will be immediately removed, he said. Many individuals from Central America are found to be ineligible for these forms of protections and are, in fact, promptly removed.