A day before meeting with President Obama at the White House to discuss the border crisis, the presidents of Honduras and Guatemala blamed the wave of unaccompanied children inundating the U.S. on American foreign policy and on gridlock in Congress over immigration reform.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said ambiguity in Washington's immigration debate has helped human smugglers, called "coyotes," convince Central Americans that they can stay in the U.S. if they make the long, illegal journey.
"That is a situation that the coyotes are very perversely taking very much an opportunity to exploit," Mr. Hernandez, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters.
Mr. Hernandez and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina were on Capitol Hill to meet with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, before the Friday meeting at the White House.
"We are committed to addressing their humanitarian needs. We are committed to due process for them," said Mrs. Pelosi, referring to the border children. "In order for that to happen, we must pass the president's request" for $3.7 billion to address the crisis.
Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren will join Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Perez for the meeting with Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
According to White House officials speaking with reporters Thursday on condition of anonymity, the administration is considering making young Hondurans eligible for refugee status. Although no decision has been made, they said, such a move would allow youths to apply for that status at a U.S. facility in Honduras, potentially averting the chaos at the border.
Mr. Perez said human traffickers reportedly make $6,000 to $9,000 for each person they smuggle. "They're making a lot of money, but through deception," he said.
About 90,000 unaccompanied children, most of them from the three Central American countries, are expected to cross the border illegally this year. That number has spiked from about 8,000 annually.
Congress seems to be at an impasse over how to deal with the influx.
The Democrat-controlled Senate last year passed an immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. The bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House, where conservatives have questioned Mr. Obama's willingness to secure the border.
Mr. Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency spending, mostly for more immigration judges and more resources to care for the children, met similar objections. Members of both parties said the president's request was excessive, rendering it all but dead on arrival in Congress.
Senate Democrats proposed a $2.7 billion bill.
House Republicans will meet Friday to consider how to proceed with their $1.5 billion plan. Democrats oppose the proposed repeal of a 2008 law that delays immigration hearings for unaccompanied children from Central America.
Mr. Obama and Mrs. Pelosi previously supported changing the 2008 law but reversed course after hearing an outcry from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and immigration advocates.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat, said Thursday that keeping the 2008 law in place is "the fundamental line in the sand for many of us."
"We feel that the law is there for a reason — that the due process involved in this law requires that these children have advocates, that they have an opportunity to have someone represent them," Mr. Grijalva said on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal." "How is a 5-year-old child from Honduras going to be able to make a claim of either asylum or fear of violence?"
The White House said changes to the law should proceed slowly and separately from the funding proposal. The administration is struggling to adhere to requirements for housing the youths and reuniting them with relatives in the U.S.
Republicans are skeptical of the Democrats' preferred scenario.
"I want to be clear: There's going to be no blank check for the president and his allies," House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said at his weekly press conference at the Capitol.
"Some in Washington may view every new crisis as an opportunity to demand more taxpayer dollars, but the American people don't see it that way. They want solutions," he said. "And I'm still hopeful that common ground can be found."
At a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Perez said U.S. foreign policy was driving their citizens northward.
Mr. Perez said U.S. efforts to combat drug gangs in Colombia and Mexico are pushing organized crime into Central America. "What has been good for Colombia and Mexico has been bad for us," he said.
Mr. Hernandez said the drug trade — "the monster" — thrives off of Americans’ appetite for illegal drugs. "That monster has one foot in Central America and one foot in the U.S.," he said.
The Obama administration also has blamed violence and drug gangs in Central America for forcing families and children to flee to the U.S.
Republicans, however, say Mr. Obama's easing of deportations and other immigrant-friendly policies are encouraging border jumpers.
"These kids were here in this country at the invitation of the president," said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. "I think everyone knows it. Nobody says it.
"All of them were programmed to say they have relatives here, they were invited to come up here, they're going to stay here," Mr. Inhofe said on MSNBC's "The Daily Rundown." "At the same time, HHS says we're not going to send them back. As long as they have that assurance, more are coming in."
Mr. Perez and Mr. Hernandez suggested that more U.S. aid to their countries would help solve the problem.
"We're dealing with the problem, even with our limited means," said Mr. Hernandez. "But with the level of complexity of the problem ... we can't do it alone."
Mr. Perez added: "One dollar invested in Central American security is one dollar invested in U.S. security."
• Alexander Liu and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.
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