The Obama administration, moving Friday to stem a flood of Central American children and families that has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system, dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala to warn about the perils of the journey and announcing that it will start to detain families at the border instead of releasing them on their own recognizance.
After weeks of insistence that criminal violence was responsible for the surge of Central American migrants, the U.S. has begun a regional public-relations campaign to dispel the widespread belief in Central America that children and families will be allowed to stay in the U.S. if they are caught by the Border Patrol.
That belief has been fueled both by migrant smugglers seeking more clients and by calls home from children and families who have been released by the tens of thousands in recent years — with notices to appear in immigration court — because there are no facilities to hold them.
The administration said Friday that it was opening detention centers to house families and that it would also boost law enforcement’s capacity to detain individuals who bring children with them into the U.S. The goal would be to detain a larger percentage of those migrants and accelerate their cases in immigration courts so that they can be deported more rapidly, officials told The New York Times.
Rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union were skeptical about the proposed changes, which the Times reported would include more detention centers and extensive use of ankle bracelets to monitor the whereabouts of migrants after they are released.
"Human rights require that detention be the last resort, not the first," said ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin in a statement. "Families should be moved out of detention as soon as possible and be released under humane and reasonable supervision, including community-based alternatives to detention which have proven to be cost-effective and efficient."
In Guatemala City, Biden discussed the mass immigration of Guatemalan children and families with President Otto Pérez Molina, who noted that more than 11,000 children have made the trek at great personal risk.
Biden was also scheduled to meet with Salvadoran President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and high-ranking ministers from Honduras and Mexico.
While the vice president planned to emphasize the dangers of northbound migration and the probability that migrants would be deported, Central American leaders are expected to ask him for a series of measures meant to ease migrants' paths to the U.S.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera said that his country would ask Biden for temporary work permits and a grant of "temporary protected status" for Guatemalan migrants. That status prevents migrants from being detained or deported due to the dangers of returning to their country.
The Obama administration has repeatedly rejected granting Central Americans such a blanket status, despite levels of homicide, extortion, rape and gang recruitment that have risen to epidemic levels in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent years.
Biden was meeting in the afternoon with migrants' advocates expected to make similar demands.
Despite the waning likelihood of U.S. immigration reform, Sánchez Cerén told reporters that he would emphasize the need for reform in which "family reunification can be something achieved through the best means possible."
He said he had spoken with the foreign ministers of Guatemala and Honduras about presenting a united demand for a deal with the U.S. that would make it easier for immigrant families in the U.S. to be legally reunited with children they left behind.
Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats in the region warned families not to send their children north or go themselves.
"All who enter the United States without proper immigration status are subject to deportation proceedings. Simply put, there is no reward for the great risk to which these children are being subjected," Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne said Thursday.
Al Jazeera and the Associated Press