Obama Meets With Central American Leaders, Proposes New Refugee-Screening Program

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 17: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks about Obamacare and the ongoing tensions in Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House April 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the EU issued a joint statement today on the crisis in Ukraine calling for all illegal armed groups to be disarmed, all illegally seized buildings to be returned to their owners, and for all occupied public spaces to be vacated. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
July 25, 2014, 1:12 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama fought the battle of the bor­der on two fronts Fri­day, meet­ing with the lead­ers of the three Cent­ral Amer­ic­an coun­tries that have sent the most chil­dren in­to the United States while the White House con­tin­ued to press Con­gress to ap­prove the money he said he needs to send the kids back home.

The pres­id­ent met for about two hours with Guatem­alan Pres­id­ent Otto Perez Mo­lina, Hon­dur­an Pres­id­ent Juan Or­lando Hernan­dez, and El Sal­vador Pres­id­ent Sal­vador Sanc­hez Cer­en, a day after they had talked to lead­ers on Cap­it­ol Hill. At the meet­ing, Obama pro­posed a pi­lot pro­gram that would be­gin in Hon­dur­as be­fore be­ing ex­pan­ded to oth­er coun­tries. In it, those ap­ply­ing for refugee status would be screened in their own coun­tries be­fore mak­ing the dan­ger­ous trek to the United States, rather than after ar­riv­ing here.

White House press sec­ret­ary Josh Earn­est cast this pi­lot pro­gram as one way to stem the flow of chil­dren. “We want to try to find a way that we can meet the hu­man­it­ari­an needs of these in­di­vidu­als,” he said. “And work­ing with host gov­ern­ments to es­tab­lish re­pat­ri­ation cen­ters is an im­port­ant step in that pro­cess.”

The White House was vague on the spe­cif­ics of the pro­gram, however. “At this stage it’s too early for me to say what those num­bers would look like,” Earn­est said. “But our broad­er in­tent here is as a broad mes­sage of de­terrence, that people would see that there is an or­gan­ized pro­cess if they feel like they have a le­git­im­ate asylum claim, that they don’t need to make the dan­ger­ous jour­ney to the U.S. to make that asylum claim, that they can be pro­cessed in their own coun­try. And that would, we hope, serve as a pretty ef­fect­ive de­terrent.”

The White House meet­ing was de­signed to com­ple­ment an edu­ca­tion of­fens­ive moun­ted in Cent­ral Amer­ica by the United States, with ad­vert­ise­ments ur­ging par­ents not to sub­ject their chil­dren to the jour­ney north­ward and warn­ing them that their kids would not be al­lowed to re­main in this coun­try.

The fo­cus has been on these three coun­tries be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tends that more than 57,000 chil­dren have been smuggled across the bor­der from there since Oc­to­ber. All three are be­set by vi­ol­ence and drug-re­lated gangs and all three lead­ers in­sist the United States shares blame for the bor­der crisis be­cause of this coun­try’s ap­pet­ite for drugs.

In the brief part of the meet­ing when re­port­ers were present, Obama said, “Chil­dren who do not have prop­er claims “¦ will at some point be sub­ject to re­pat­ri­ation to their home coun­tries.” But he said he agreed with the three vis­it­ing pres­id­ents on the need to ad­dress the poverty and vi­ol­ence that had led so many to send their chil­dren to the United States.

“I em­phas­ized that the Amer­ic­an people and my ad­min­is­tra­tion have great com­pas­sion for these chil­dren,” he said, adding, “But I also em­phas­ized to my friends that we have to de­ter a con­tinu­ing in­flux of chil­dren put­ting them­selves at risk.”

Even while the meet­ing was un­der­way, the White House main­tained the pres­sure on Con­gress to act on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­quest for money to deal with the crisis be­fore break­ing for Au­gust next week. Earn­est ac­know­ledged that the pres­id­ent has not per­son­ally phoned Speak­er John Boehner to get the bill through, in­sist­ing that Boehner first needs to work out dif­fer­ences in his own Re­pub­lic­an caucus. Boehner “said that he was still dis­cuss­ing among his mem­bers what they felt like they could do. It doesn’t sound to me like they’re in a po­s­i­tion to be­gin ne­go­ti­at­ing, at least be­gin ne­go­ti­at­ing with the White House. It still ap­pears that “¦ three weeks after we’ve made our re­quest, the House Re­pub­lic­ans are still ne­go­ti­at­ing among them­selves what to do.”

But Earn­est said time is run­ning out. “We’re con­cerned about this be­cause there’s only one week left be­fore they de­part Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for their an­nu­al five-week re­cess in Au­gust. And that means that this is a pivotal week that’s com­ing up. There are a lot of pri­or­it­ies that re­main un­done and we’re pretty con­cerned about that.”

He ad­ded, “What we’ve seen from Con­gress is a lot of talk but not really any ac­tion. And that is a dis­ap­point­ment “¦ that they’re not will­ing to live up to their own rhet­or­ic when it comes to deal­ing with this is­sue.”

In a let­ter to Obama this week, Boehner said “House Re­pub­lic­ans have been clear that we want to work with you to help the vic­tims of the ter­rible hu­man­it­ari­an crisis at our south­ern bor­der—par­tic­u­larly the chil­dren, who have been cruelly duped in­to mak­ing a per­il­ous jour­ney.” He chal­lenged Obama to show more lead­er­ship on the is­sue.

House Re­pub­lic­ans met in a closed-door meet­ing Fri­day to hash out a plan with­in their own caucus, and a bill will likely be presen­ted Monday.

Many mem­bers are staunch in their res­ist­ance to change a 2008 anti-traf­fick­ing law to al­low Cent­ral Amer­ic­an chil­dren to be re­turned vol­un­tar­ily—a no­tion many Demo­crats op­pose and Obama’s emer­gency sup­ple­ment­al re­quest does not in­clude.

But it’s im­per­at­ive to pass some le­gis­la­tion aimed at curb­ing the crisis at the bor­der be­fore the Au­gust re­cess or mem­bers shouldn’t leave for their sum­mer re­prieve, said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas. Though dis­trust of the pres­id­ent to en­force the law is palp­able with­in the Re­pub­lic­an Party, there could be polit­ic­al fal­lout if the House fails to act, Rep. Bill Flores said Fri­day morn­ing.

“I think we have a big polit­ic­al risk if we leave without do­ing any­thing,” the Texas Re­pub­lic­an said.

Dis­cus­sions will con­tin­ue next week. And the Sen­ate and the House have much to hash out, in­clud­ing wide gaps in how much they’re will­ing to spend to ad­dress the crisis at the bor­der.

Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.
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