Central American governments are beginning to feel heat from Washington, which is increasingly blaming leaders in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala for failing their own citizens — forcing many to flee to the U.S., banking on uncertain promises or rumors of legal status.
Democrats urged those governments to "tell the truth" to their people, even as Vice President Joseph R. Biden prepares for a Friday meeting in Guatemala with representatives of the three nations.
That follows what one participant described as a "very testy" meeting Wednesday between Hispanics in Congress and ambassadors for the three nations, who exchanged blame for what all sides say is a humanitarian nightmare.
"I do not see the countries of Central America stepping up to take responsibility for the danger, dysfunction, death and despair in their own cities and towns," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, said Thursday.
More than 90,000 unaccompanied minors — children traveling without parents, often in the company of smugglers but sometimes alone — are expected to be caught trying to enter the U.S. this year.
That number doesn't include the women with young children who are also surging across the border, fleeing poor economies and threats of violence at home and braving horrific conditions on the trip through Mexico in an effort to gain a foothold in the U.S.
Neither Honduran nor Guatemalan embassy officials in Washington returned messages seeking comment Thursday.
But a source at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington detailed a number of steps the country is taking to try to gain control of the situation, including testing a program designed to discourage teens from trying to reach the U.S. without permits, and attempting to reduce income inequality and boost security in El Salvador.
The country also has deployed a deputy foreign minister to the U.S. border to help identify Salvadoran children and make sure they are given consulate protection.
"In recent days, El Salvador has strengthened our consulates in the border, and our cooperation with American authorities is intense," the source said. "These examples show our commitment to find common solutions with the United States. Nevertheless, [what] is needed [is] a transnational approach that deals with socioeconomic and security themes such as drug trafficking, organized crime and economic growth."
From October through the end of May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported apprehending 9,850 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, 11,479 from Guatemala, 13,282 from Honduras and 11,577 from Mexico. In every case but Mexico, the numbers are up dramatically from the previous fiscal year.
Lawmakers were quick to acknowledge blame in the U.S. as well.
Mr. Gutierrez pointed to "the insatiable appetite for drugs on our streets" that is feeding into drug gangs' power in Central America. Others argued that the uncertainty of the U.S. immigration system acts as a lure and a potential promise of legal status.
The causes of the surge are hotly debated in the U.S. and abroad.
Some argue that the phenomenon is chiefly a result of deteriorating conditions in Central American countries in particular and is not related to U.S. immigration policy.
They point to shockingly high homicide rates as evidence of a social breakdown and say migrants also are fleeing to other Latin American nations, laying blame away from President Obama's policies.
But Border Patrol agents say almost all the children tell them they have come to the U.S. to gain a foothold. The children aren't trying to evade capture, but instead are hoping to be apprehended by Border Patrol agents.
Under U.S. policy, the government is required to try to match the children with family in the U.S., whether they are in the country legally or not — thus completing the smuggling circuit.
The El Salvador Embassy source said the migrants are being pushed north by higher crime in Central America, a lack of economic opportunities and increased sophistication of smugglers, who see children as a "niche market."
"Nevertheless, we think that the main cause of this flow of migrants is the desire of families to reunite with their children. Since no legal option for reunification exists, families choose the risky option," the source said.
Mr. Biden added the Guatemala stop to a previously scheduled trip through Latin America specifically to deliver a message to Central American leaders. He is expected to try to dispel rumors of legal status for newcomers.
The White House said Mr. Biden will say that those crossing the border now aren't eligible for legal status under either Mr. Obama's nondeportation policies or the Senate immigration bill pending in Congress.
But the administration cannot categorically rule out legal status because many of the children will be eligible for other protections, such as asylum or special visas for juveniles.
According to an internal U.S. Customs and Border Protection memo, the trip pays off for many of the children, even those subject to deportation. The process can take years and give them a chance to disappear into the shadows as illegal immigrants.
Mr. Biden's former colleagues hoped he would deliver a stern message.
"He has a way of being blunt, and I would be disappointed in this case if he were not," said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, who served alongside Mr. Biden in the Senate as a Delaware Democrat.
The Central American nations also have their wish lists.
Salvadoran President Sanchez Ceren will request another round of money — $270 million — from the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. aid program.
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