U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on Central American nations to address a growing immigration crisis that has seen thousands of unaccompanied children arrive illegally across the U.S. border.
Kerry met Tuesday in Panama City with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala and the foreign minister of Honduras. The officials were gathered in Panama for the inauguration of the country's new president, Juan Carlos Varela, but used the opportunity to discuss the immigration issue.
Appearing alongside the Central American leaders, Kerry acknowledged the region's struggles with violence and poverty. He said the U.S. understands people who want to look for a better life. But he said the children flooding the U.S. border are being "exploited" and "put in great danger."
"There are rules of law and there is a process, and there is false information that is being spread about benefits that might be available to these young people who are looking for that better life,” Kerry said.
“We need to work together to communicate to our people, to try to apply the law, and most importantly, to work with each of these countries to address the fundamental, underlying causes of this particular challenge."
Most of the children who have crossed into the United States recently have come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
El Salvador's President Salvador Sánchez Cerén said the three countries already have taken some measures since they learned of the situation.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said the three nations' foreign ministers will visit Washington this week. He said there are also discussions about joint meetings among the three countries on security programs, as well as economic teams to generate investment and employment opportunities — a step he said "helps to avoid this type of immigration."
The arrival of so many children has overwhelmed U.S. immigration officials, but under U.S. law the immigrants cannot be immediately sent back to their home countries. Some of the children may be reunited with parents already living in the United States.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is asking Congress for new authority to deport such children.
In a letter to congressional leaders Monday, Obama said the U.S. has the "legal and moral obligation" to care for the 52,000 unaccompanied children and 39,000 women with children who have crossed into the United States along its southwestern border with Mexico since October.
But he asked Congress for new funding that could total $2 billion for an "aggressive deterrence strategy" to carry out deportations and curb the migration.
Immigration debate rekindled
In the United States, the situation has reignited the political debate over immigration.
Republicans say Obama's moves to ease immigration rules have encouraged Central Americans to flee violence in their countries and make the risky trip to the U.S.
But Obama puts the blame on Republicans for refusing to pass legislation to reform the U.S. immigration system.
And the president is now pledging to act without Congress. He said Monday he has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Attorney General Eric Holder for recommendations on possible executive actions he could take.