Obama to meet Central American leaders on child migrants

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama will meet three Central American leaders on Friday to discuss the surge of children crossing the southern US border without parents or papers, in flight from violence and poverty.

The White House summit will mark the first time since the influx erupted into public view two months ago that Obama has met with leaders of the countries where most of the minors are from.

Presidents Otto Perez of Guatemala, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador and Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras are expected to come with a joint proposal for dealing with the crisis, officials said.

"This problem has been building for a year now, but we have never seen it escalate to the magnitude that it has reached at present," Mr Hernandez said after meeting senior US lawmaker Nancy Pelosi.

He said the problem was "deeply rooted" in drug trafficking and the violence it has generated in his country.

"But also it is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity, or ambiguity, that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates on immigration reform in the United States," he added.

An estimated 57,000 unaccompanied minors, most of them from Central America, have crossed the border since October, a surge that has overwhelmed US capacity to process them.

Mr Obama has asked the US Congress for US$3.7 billion (S$4.6 billion) in emergency funds to mitigate the crisis by hiring more immigration judges and border agents.

Congress is debating the funding, but the request has encountered resistance among Republican lawmakers.

El Salvador's Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez said the Central Americans will make a joint commitment to toughen laws against human trafficking and wage an information campaign on the risks of illegal migration.

But they will also ask Washington help finance projects intended to create jobs and security in their countries, he said.

"We are going with a sense of optimism to this meeting, we are taking a joint position that is solid, that is a concrete Central American proposal," he said.

State Department adviser Thomas Shannon, visiting the region to prepare for the White House meeting, said in El Salvador on Wednesday it will produce a joint plan to deal with the influx through closer cooperation.

Mr Shannon emphasised that "the number one challenge is to convince young people not to leave their country."

But the US and Central American leaders will also pursue joint strategies to promote economic development and personal security in Central America, he said.

Gang violence, the lack of economic opportunity and the separation of families have led parents to entrust their children, including some under the age of six, to "coyote" guides on the dangerous overland journey to the United States.

Mr Perez attributed to the surge to smugglers telling families that children who make it to the United States will be able to stay.

Mr Obama's critics blame the influx in part on the president's 2012 order to no longer deport some young undocumented immigrants, including those who arrived as children and have no criminal record.

The White House and some lawmakers, meanwhile, want to make changes to a 2008 human trafficking law that gives unaccompanied minors from countries that do not border the United States greater legal rights than those from Mexico and Canada.

Typically, unaccompanied minors who are detained are placed in shelters or with family members in the United States while the courts decide their status, a process than can take months or years.