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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will urge Central American leaders to help slow the influx of unaccompanied children fleeing their countries for the United States, even as Congress remains deeply divided over proposals to stem the crisis at the border.
Friday's meeting comes as the administration considers creating a pilot program giving refugee status to young people from Honduras. White House officials said the plan would involve screening youths in their home country to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. The program would be limited and would start in Honduras but could be expanded to include other Central American countries.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, speaking Thursday in Washington, said he hadn't heard about the plan but expected it to come up Friday. He said Central American nations have sought to pursue a unified approach. "We expect that the solution to this problem also is equal for the three countries," he said.
Besides Molina, Obama was to host Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and El Salvador President Salvador Sanchez Ceren on Friday, the day after they met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are considering Obama's requests for emergency funds and additional authority to send unaccompanied children back to their home countries more quickly. Those lawmakers appear unlikely to resolve their differences on either front before leaving Washington late next week for their annual August recess.
With critics claiming Obama's own policies triggered the crisis, the president has been eager to demonstrate an aggressive approach to reducing the flow of immigrants and returning those found not to have a legitimate claim to stay here.
The U.S. has mounted a communications campaign to inform Central American residents that they won't be allowed to stay in the U.S., and Obama sent a team to Texas this week to weigh the possibility of dispatching the National Guard to the border.
Under the in-country screening program the White House is considering, the legal standard for youths to qualify for refugee status would remain the same as it is for those who seek the status after arriving in the U.S., officials said, adding that the goal is to deter children who would not ultimately qualify for refugee status from attempting the dangerous trek. The officials briefed reporters ahead of Obama's meeting on the condition they not be identified by name.
More than 57,000 minors have arrived since October, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The trio of nations has become one of the most violent regions in the world in recent years, with swaths of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs that rob, rape and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.
In recent weeks, the number of children being apprehended daily has fallen by roughly half, but White House officials said seasonal patterns or other factors unrelated to the administration's efforts may be responsible for some of the decline.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with the Guatemalan and Honduran presidents Thursday. He said he was impressed by what the leaders were doing to crack down on human trafficking. Yet he said he also made clear the responsibility those governments had to follow through as the U.S. considers sending more money to Central America to help address the problem.
Obama has asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending, but lawmakers were looking at cutting that number down significantly. At the same time, Republicans said they wouldn't agree to any money without policy changes to give the government more authority to turn kids around fast at the border and send them home.