WASHINGTON/TEGUCIGALPA - The U.S. government's deportation on Monday of a group of Honduran women and children should be seen by Central America as a message that President Barack Obama is serious when he says illegal migrants will be sent home, the White House said.
The charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, transported 17 Honduran women, as well as 12 girls and nine boys aged between 18 months and 15 years.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the return of the Hondurans should be a clear signal to those thinking about crossing the border that "they're entitled to due process but they will not be welcome to this country with open arms."
The return of the Hondurans was the most high-profile example of Obama's struggle to gain control of a chaotic border crisis that is overwhelming immigration resources and leading to scattered protests from people angry at the government for housing some border crossers in communities around the country.
Organizations working with illegal migrants and Honduran youths said the U.S. flight was largely symbolic and would have little impact on Honduran children looking to escape a country racked by gang violence and the world's highest murder rate.
"This is a problem about the country, about the conditions in the country," said Gerardo Rivera, a researcher for Casa Alianza, a youth organization in Honduras. "What they're looking for is to flee from dangerous situations, flee from poverty, flee from a lack of opportunities."
Honduran President Juan Hernandez on Monday blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence in Central American countries and driving a surge of migration to the United States.
Obama is attempting to balance competing interests: Reassure Americans that the migrants, many of them unaccompanied children who have streamed into Texas across Mexico's border by the thousands, will be sent home, while making clear to immigration advocates that they will be given due process of law.
The White House's Earnest said Obama did not personally approve the return of the Hondurans on Monday. It was a decision made by the Homeland Security Department, implementing a policy the president had set out, he said.
The tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrants entering the United States have added a toxic mix to a raging debate over whether to approve comprehensive immigration reform to cover some 11 million undocumented people in the country. Reform is a priority of Obama's, but it is dead until after November congressional elections.
Waving U.S. flags and playing patriotic music, dozens of protesters demonstrated in southern Arizona on Tuesday against the arrival of undocumented immigrants for processing at a center near the border before being returned to their homelands.
In a scene reminiscent of similar protests in California, about 65 demonstrators gathered at a fork in the road near the small town of Oracle to complain that the federal government's response to a surge of new arrivals from Central America was putting their communities at risk.
The government's return of the Hondurans could help reassure Republicans that Obama is serious about controlling the border as he tries to persuade Congress to approve an emergency request for $3.7 billion to bolster border security and speed deportation of the recent crossers.
The proposal has gotten a cool reception on Capitol Hill thus far, with Republicans blaming Obama for the crisis and wanting more emphasis on border enforcement before they give him any money.
Republicans want Obama to make good on his promise to propose a change to a 2008 anti-trafficking law to make it easier to deport the children. Under the law, children from Central America cannot be turned away at the border but must be given a hearing to determine if they qualify for humanitarian relief.
Many of Obama's Democratic allies oppose changing the law, fearing it would deny them the right to have their cases heard by an immigration judge and if sent home, could put them in danger from the criminal gangs that they had fled.
"This is not the middle ground, this is the deportation-only agenda dressed up in sheep's clothing," said Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
"The backbone and commitment to justice of the strongest and most generous nation in the world is trembling at the presence of 50,000 children and responding by taking away legal rights from vulnerable children. It is shameful," Gutierrez said.
But Representative Matt Salmon, a member of the Republican border security working group that visited Honduras and Guatemala over the weekend, said the best way to end the border crisis was to accelerate the return of unaccompanied minors.
"If we don't send that message through our actions not our rhetoric we will continue to have wave after wave after wave" of illegal immigrant children, Salmon said.