WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pushed the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador on Friday to find ways to keep their countries' children from fleeing here illegally and creating a crisis on the southern U.S. border.
Obama invited the presidents of the three Central American nations to the White House to discuss possible solutions to the growing number of children traveling to the United States illegally and alone.
"I emphasized that the American people and my administration have great compassion for these children," Obama said as the nearly two-hour meeting in the Cabinet Room closed. "But I also emphasized to my friends that we have to deter a continuing influx of children putting themselves at risk."
The four presidents pledged cooperation but didn't make any announcements about programs or assistance.
One option they did discuss was a possible pilot program to allow children from Honduras into the United States without making the journey through Mexico. It could later be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador.
The proposal calls for screening children who are fleeing dangerous street gangs in Honduras to determine whether they could enter as refugees or on emergency humanitarian grounds, similar to past efforts in Haiti and Vietnam. The White House said the program could be enacted through executive action without congressional approval.
"There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," Obama said. "But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number of additional migrants."
The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has surged this year, despite an increase in deportations.
About 52,000 minors traveling without their parents have been caught at the border since October, according to the Obama administration. But the flow has slowed in recent weeks — from more than 350 per day in June to about 150 daily the first two weeks of July — probably because of many factors, from the weather to a media campaign urging parents not to send their children to the United States.
Presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras have stepped up criticism of the U.S. government, saying it has failed to help their governments battle the drug trafficking that's partly to blame for the surge in child migrants.
"We are working very hard. But it would be far easier if we had aggressive cooperation from the United States," Perez Molina said Thursday at a forum organized by the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington.
Hernandez said vast U.S. antinarcotics programs in Colombia and Mexico have pushed drug traffickers to Central America, creating havoc in countries such as his.
"The Colombia plan … worked very well for Colombia and for Mexico," Hernandez said. "But we're picking up the pieces because they all came home to roost in Central America."
Honduras has become a crucial transshipment point for cocaine smuggled to the United States. The State Department estimated last year that 87 percent of the cocaine-smuggling flights that depart from South America land in Honduras, a country that now boasts the highest homicide rate in the world. Roughly 80 percent of the cocaine that moves through Central America goes through Guatemala.
Obama recently asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion to help pay for additional Border Patrol agents, more beds at detention centers and an increase in prosecutions of smuggling networks, but lawmakers so far have balked. He also wants Congress to let his administration treat unaccompanied children from Central American countries the same way it treats those from Mexico and allow them to be returned swiftly.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told lawmakers Friday that the chamber will vote next week on a package designed to stem the flow of children. The plan includes recommendations from a working group led by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, to treat children from Central America the same as those from Mexico.
"The revisions to the '08 law will enable quick processing by putting them on the same level as those from Mexico," Granger spokesman Steve Dutton said.
President George W. Bush signed an immigration bill in 2008 — intended to prevent child smuggling — that requires children who aren't from Mexico to go through deportation proceedings, while Mexican immigrants can be sent back immediately.
The package would also authorize sending National Guard troops to the border, give the Border Patrol access to federal lands that have become havens for smugglers and increase the number of immigration judges.
Administration officials say the money is urgently needed, but they don't have much hope that the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate will agree on a bill before their five-week recess begins at the end of next week.
"What we've seen from Congress is a lot of talk but not really any action," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.