THE plight of unaccompanied children pouring into the United States from Central America has been raised by President Barack Obama in talks with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Pena Nieto.
Responding to what Mr Obama calls an urgent humanitarian crisis, the US Congress put forward legislation this week that will boost funds to handle a surge of foreign children entering the US illegally.
According to the US border patrol, between 1 October last and 31 May, 47,017 unaccompanied minors entered the US illegally, almost doubling the number registered in 2013.
Democratic senator Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the appropriations committee, included up to $2.28 billion (£1.35bn) for the department of health and human services to feed and shelter the estimated 130,000 minors expected to arrive in the coming year.
The White House said of the meeting with Mr Nieto that Mr Obama welcomed the “opportunity to work in close co-operation with Mexico to develop concrete proposals to address the root causes” of the illegal migration problem.
Vice-president Joe Biden added a stop in Guatemala yesterday to a scheduled Latin America trip to meet Central American leaders for talks.
He was due to join Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, Honduran co-ordinator general Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro and Mexican secretary of government Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong for a working lunch on the issue.
Mr Biden is looking to “address some of the misperceptions of US immigration policy and discuss the fact unaccompanied children arriving as part of this surge will not be eligible for deferred action”, according to a White House official.
Between October and May, more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, crossed into the US, nearly double the number in the previous 12 months, US homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson said last week.
Mr Johnson and senior officials from various US agencies were in Texas yesterday to view the US government’s response to the influx of children.
Mr Obama told Mr Pena Nieto that the US and Mexico could work together to return children safely to their families.
Recent images have shown children sleeping out close to the border, with only foil rescue blankets to keep them warm. Many travel hundreds of miles and face dangerous conditions to reach the US.
Mr Obama repeated his position that arriving migrants would not be eligible for legalisation under proposed immigration reforms or “deferred action for childhood” rules, which suspend attempts to repatriate minors.
The White House earlier this month rejected Republican claims the surge in illegal immigration was the result of Mr Obama’s decision to allow some children who entered illegally before 2007 to remain in the US.
“It is a direct consequence of the president’s illegal actions,” Texan Republican Ted Cruz said.
“The parents think, ‘If I send my child [to the US], my child will have amnesty’. That’s what the president of the US has said. It is the exact opposite of a humane approach to immigration or to securing our borders.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told The Hill newspaper: “There are some who oppose this compromise and will cite a wide range of things to suggest why they think that immigration [reform] shouldn’t get done.” He continued. “Apparently, that extends to trying to divine the motivations and thoughts of minors who don’t live in this country.”
A senior administration official said it was “abundantly clear” the upturn in numbers was due to violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Most of the immigrants who illegally cross the Texan border come from those countries.
White House officials also noted that the children who crossed the border would not be eligible for deferred action and would be returned home.
Asked if Mr Biden’s trip signalled the White House now believed misperceptions of the deferred action had been a contributing factor, Mr Earnest would not commit himself.
Immigration is a key issue for the Republican party. The task for Mr Obama’s Democrats is to balance public concern about illegal immigration with an appeal to a large Hispanic population to trust his party to deal with the issue fairly.