WHITE HOUSE - President Barack Obama met with leaders of three Central American nations Friday to ask for their help in stemming the flow of thousands of unaccompanied minors to the southern U.S. border.
Obama told the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at a White House meeting it is not a lack of compassion, but an obligation to obey immigration laws that is prompting the U.S. to turn back many of those coming to this country's borders.
The U.S. president asked the leaders to do their part. “All of us recognize that we have a shared responsibility to address this problem.”
Obama said there may be some cases in which migrants can apply for refugee status, but that those instances will be few.
Under U.S. law, those who come and seek asylum are given due process, meaning the courts decide whether they can stay or not.
The migrants make the dangerous journey across Mexico in the belief that they will get residency permits - a hope that is encouraged by human smugglers.
Political analyst Michael Barone said the influx of unaccompanied minors poses a real problem for Obama.
“On the one hand, he has made the arguments that he's increased the number of deportations, but it doesn't look like a very secure border. It looks like people are coming over and staying here,” said Barone.
Activists in the Latino community -- one of Obama's main sources of political support -- have criticized the deportations.
And so the president's discussions with Central American leaders Friday included a proposal to further discourage migrants from making the trip north, and thus avoid the need for the U.S. to deport them: a pilot program where Central Americans can seek asylum in their home countries, not at the U.S. border.
White House officials say the pilot program would involve screening some youth in Honduras to see if they qualify for refugee status in the United States. They say the young people could be interviewed before they make the dangerous journey to the U.S. border.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The idea here is that in order to deter them from making that dangerous journey, we'd set up a system in coordination with these host countries to allow those claims to be filed in that country without them having to make that dangerous journey.”
The plan is drawing fire from opposition lawmakers who are pushing to pass a narrow immigration bill in the coming days before going on their summer recess.
That bill includes deploying National Guard troops on the border and assigning more judges to help speed up deportations.
Since October, more than 57,000 unaccompanied children have been held at the United States' southern border, most of them from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. In many cases, the children are trying to reach parents or other relatives who have paid to have them brought into the U.S.
U.S. officials have been urging the Central American leaders to do more to stem the flow.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and his Honduran counterpart, Juan Orlando Hernández, met Thursday with members of the U.S. Congress ahead of the White House meeting.
Speaking with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, the Honduran leader said the crisis is a result of crime and poverty in Central America, as well as failures of the U.S. legal system.
In many cases, the children are trying to reach parents or other relatives who have paid to have them brought into the U.S.
Obama also urged Republican lawmakers Friday to approve a request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to deal with the immigration surge.
Republicans in Congress are considering a smaller amount and say Obama's immigration policies have encouraged the flood of children across the border.
Both the president and the Democratically-led Senate have championed immigration reforms that would give the 11 million immigrants already in the United States illegally a path to obtain U.S. citizenship. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is opposed and says it will not vote on the issue this year.
VOA's Alex Villarreal contribute information to this report.