GUATEMALA CITY — The Obama administration moved Friday to stem a flood of Central American children and families that has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to the region to warn against the perils of the trip 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 fight 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 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, although it did not provide details. Biden met in Guatemala City with President Otto Perez Molina, who asked the Obama administration to start a temporary work program for Guatemalan migrants and grant "temporary protected status" for Guatemalan migrants.
Homicide, extortion, rape and gang recruitment have risen to epidemic levels in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent years. The violence is seen as the key factor driving migrants north, with children making up an increasing proportion of the U.S.-bound flow. The number of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador detained at the U.S. border last year was more than 20,000, double the previous year's figure.
To coincide with Biden's trip, the Obama administration pledged $93 million in new programs to reduce violence in Central America. The funding includes $40 million to reduce gang membership in Guatemala, $25 million to build 77 youth outreach centers in in El Salvador and $18.5 million to build 77 youth outreach centers in Honduras.
Biden was also meeting with Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and high-ranking ministers from Honduras and Mexico. The Vice President's office said Biden spoke by phone to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez while traveling to Guatemala.
Biden was meeting in the afternoon with migrants' advocates also expected to make demands for easier immigration to the U.S. The vice president's visit coincided with the arrival of two flights carrying at least 250 migrants deported from the U.S. The country's migration department said it expected two more such flights Friday, bringing the total of Guatemalans deported in 2014 to 27,140.
Despite the waning likelihood of U.S. immigration reform, Sanchez Ceren 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 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.