U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asks Central America for help on immigration

By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, July 1 2014 1:15 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 1 2014 1:15 p.m. MDT

Secretary of State John Kerry, right, and Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Munoz, left, shake hands after signing several Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries at the State Department in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

PANAMA CITY, Panama — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked Central American nations on Tuesday to work with the Obama administration to curb a massive influx of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States illegally.

Meeting in Panama with the presidents of El Salvador and Guatemala and the foreign minister of Honduras, Kerry said the crisis has reached a "critical time" and that urgent concerted action was needed to resolve the cases of more than 50,000 youngsters already detained in the U.S. Kerry also urged immediate steps to address poverty and crime, thought to be underlying causes of the phenomenon.

"Tens of thousands of young children are being exploited and are being put at great danger and it is a challenge to each of us," Kerry said as he met the officials before they all attended the inauguration of Panama's new president. He called it a "very complicated issue" exacerbated by crime, violence and poverty but blamed criminal gangs and human traffickers for encouraging naïve families to send their children north.

"The lives of children cannot be put at risk this way and we all have a responsibility and we all have a responsibility as leaders to do our part in order to solve this problem and we will," Kerry said.

The Central American officials echoed Kerry's dire comments and each spoke of programs their governments were putting in place to educate families on the dangers of sending their children to the United States illegally. Among those initiatives are improving awareness of U.S. immigration laws and stepping up law enforcement but each spoke of the longer-term challenges of improving living standards in their own countries

The number of unaccompanied immigrant children picked up along the border has been rising for three years as they fled pervasive gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. More recently, children and parents have said they heard that children traveling alone and parents traveling with young kids would be released by authorities and allowed to continue to their destination.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October, creating what President Barack Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation." Some of them have died trying.

On Monday, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to deal with the surge of youths, mostly from Central America. Obama wants flexibility to speed the youths' deportations and $2 billion to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities

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