Central America presses Biden on migrant rights as U.S. vows aid

GUATEMALA CITY Fri Jun 20, 2014 4:31pm EDT

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the UN-controlled buffer zone splitting Cyprus and its capital Nicosia May 22, 2014. REUTERS/Andreas Manolis

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the UN-controlled buffer zone splitting Cyprus and its capital Nicosia May 22, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Andreas Manolis

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Central American leaders on Friday pressed visiting U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to improve migrant rights, even as the United States committed tens of millions of dollars in extra aid to the region in a bid to stem a surge of illegal immigration.

The White House said the United States would launch a $40 million program to improve security in Guatemala to reduce pressures forcing migration to United States and a $25 million program to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are vulnerable to organized-crime pressure. [ID:nL2N0P1117]

Responding to what President Barack Obama has called a humanitarian crisis, the U.S. Congress on Tuesday advanced legislation boosting funds by as much as $2.28 billion to handle a surge of foreign children entering the country illegally.

But underlying tensions continue to simmer.

Senator Robert Menendez and Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez said U.S. lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday held a "very testy meeting" with diplomats from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.  

"I proposed to the Vice-President the possibility of considering temporary work programs, which would allow (Guatemalans) to go for a time and return," Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said on Friday after meeting Biden, along with other Central American leaders, in Guatemala City.

U.S. data show that between October and May more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, have crossed into the United States, nearly double the number in the previous year.

"As long as (U.S.) immigration reform is not approved, the exodus of children to the United States will continue," Jorge Ramon Hernandez, the senior representative of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, said at the talks.

A partisan divide in the United States has stymied Obama's efforts to reform immigration laws. Biden said that "immigration reform has not died" and that efforts would continue in the Senate.

On Thursday, Obama spoke to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto over how to deal with the Central American children.

According to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified, over the past few weeks, Washington has taken steps to encourage Guatemala and Mexico to better secure their common border.

In addition, the official said, U.S. and Central American governments are reorienting their law enforcement efforts to target the child smuggling operations that increasingly are "marketing" their services to parents of unaccompanied minors.

"The (administration) message that is coming out now is 'Don't come,'" the U.S. official said in an interview. "And if you think you're coming and once you're here you won't be returned, that's not the case. You're not going to beable to stay. And that's the message that we're hoping will dissuade these young people," the official added. It is a tough message, but one that many experts think will fail to shut a spigot that Washington estimates will bring at least 60,000 "unaccompanied minors" to the U.S. border this year and grow to 120,000 next year, up from 6,000 in 2011.

"I understand why they're doing it, but I don't think it's a solution," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense. "People are desperate" to leave violence and poverty in their home countries, she added.

Many unaccompanied children have sought to escape drug-fueled conflicts in the region as well as rejoin family members who have already made the journey.

Ahead of Friday's talks, El Salvador President Salvador Sanchez Ceren said he would press Biden for a reform that could help reunite existing family members in the United States with more recently arrived relatives.

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in Mexico City, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Richard Cowan, Mark Felsenthal, Doina Chiacu and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Editing by Simon Gardner and Dan Grebler)