President Barack Obama urged the leaders of three Central American countries on Friday to work with him to stem the flow of child migrants who have surged across the U.S. border and warned that most of them would not be allowed to stay.
In a White House meeting with the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Obama had a tough-love message: His administration has compassion for the children but not many will qualify for humanitarian relief or refugee status. Many of the migrants who have crossed into the U.S. in recent months have fled poverty and crime at home.
Obama played down a proposed pilot program that his administration is considering that would give refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan, which could be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, would involve screening youths in their home countries to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
"There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is a humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," Obama said after talks with the leaders. "But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number."
The meeting came as Obama struggles to contain a border crisis triggered by the tens of thousands of children who have crossed the Texas border with Mexico in recent months, putting election-year pressure on Obama to resolve the issue.
While citing progress in stemming the migrant flow, Obama called on House Republicans to act urgently on his $3.7 billion request for emergency spending. With one week left before Congress' August recess, Republicans on Friday were trying to unite behind a plan that would spend about one-fourth of the amount in Obama's proposal.
"It is my hope that Speaker Boehner and House Republicans will not leave town for the month of August for their vacations without doing something to help solve this problem," Obama said after meeting with the Central American leaders. "We need action and less talk."
But Republicans want Democrats to agree to a change in a 2008 anti-trafficking law to speed deportations before agreeing to a pared-down version of Obama's request. Democrats do not want to speed deportations of children with links to Hispanic-Americans, who are an important Democratic voting bloc.
Obama's demand for congressional action came as GOP lawmakers said they were attempting to coalesce behind a narrow package of changes including sending National Guard troops to the border, increasing the number of U.S. immigration judges and changing a law so that migrant youths arriving by the tens of thousands could be sent home more quickly. The package would cost less than $1 billion, several lawmakers said, far less than the $3.7 billion Obama requested to deal with the crisis.
Despite plans to cut Obama's requested spending level, conservatives remained skeptical of the legislation. "The acceptable spending level is zero," said Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas.
Obama and presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador agreed on Friday to work together to attack the migrant problem.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Hernandez said the migrant children with a parent in the United States had rights. "They have rights, and we want them to be respected," he said.
Washington needed to understand that the violence in Central America stemming from drug trafficking had enormous costs, he added. Obama acknowledged in the meeting that Washington had a responsibility to counter the drug trade.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy say a tepid U.S. response to the overthrow by the Honduran military of the government of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 has helped fuel the migrant surge to the United States. The U.S. made little effort to return Zelaya to power. Instead, critics say, the U.S. suspension of military aid and counternarcotics assistance increased a power vacuum in the country’s Caribbean coast and its border with Guatemala. Consequently, drug traffickers flooded into the area and homicide rates spiked.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Obama urged the region to work with the U.S. to resolve the immediate crisis and also recommended that it develop a medium- and long-term plan to prevent such a flight of migrants in the future.
"What he asked was that we be prepared to receive the children who are not classified to remain here," Molina said. "Ultimately we have a responsibility in our countries to be prepared to receive them and give them the attention and the processes they deserve."
In other developments Friday, a top White House adviser warned that Republicans might seek the president's ouster through impeachment when he announces the new actions aimed at getting around congressional gridlock.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are expected to authorize a lawsuit against Obama next week on charges he has overstepped his constitutional authority by signing a series of executive orders this year on issues such as raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers.
Speaking during a breakfast with reporters, Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer said that the White House is taking seriously the possibility that House Republicans could initiate impeachment proceedings against Obama.
"I think that when the president acts on immigration reform it will certainly up the likelihood that they would contemplate impeachment at some point," he said.
Al Jazeera and wire services