CAPITOL HILL - Top Obama administration officials say the United States is considering a pilot program which would involve screening some youths in Honduras to see if they qualify for refugee status in the United States. Officials say the youngsters could be interviewed before they make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border, as tens of thousands of children from Central America have done already this year.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was considering possible options after talks at the White House Friday with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Earnest said one idea is a pilot program which would begin in Honduras to screen youths to determine if they qualify for refugee status.
“This pilot program is aimed squarely at deterring those individuals who may be contemplating a trip from Central America to the southwest border with the U.S.," he said.
Earnest said no decisions have been made. He said the program would be limited but could be expanded to include other Central American countries. The majority of the tens of thousands of children who have crossed the U.S. border with Mexico this year come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Many are fleeing violent street gangs.
“Right now what we are seeing is individuals who feel like they have asylum claims making a very dangerous journey from Central America to the southwest border where they are then put in the immigration system in this country, they are detained in this country, while their asylum claim is considered,” he said.
Outside the U.S. House of Representatives chamber, Republican Congressman Tom Cole told VOA he would be opposed to the measure, saying it would encourage more children to seek asylum in the U.S.
“The president I think has been consistently tone deaf on this issue, or the White House has been. And this suggestion, when I heard it this morning, without any congressional notification or suggestion, just struck me as way off the mark, very premature and likely to evoke a negative response,” said Cole.
On the Senate side, the measure appears to have similarities to a recent bill sponsored by Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. They have proposed increasing the number of refugee visas to the three Central American countries by 5,000 each, and to screen people in their home countries.
The White House has called on Congress to pass emergency funding legislation to deal with the influx before lawmakers leave for a five-week recess in August. House Republicans are working on a bill which would provide substantially less money than the president wants. The bill also would make changes to a 2008 anti-trafficking law that gives children from Central America the right to stay in the United States pending a court appearance.
The Democratic-led Senate plans to vote on its own bill, which is not likely to call for changes to that law.