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 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, although it did not release details. Biden was expected to discuss the change in Guatemala City, where he was meeting with President Otto Perez Molina, 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 from the Dominican Republic to Guatemala.
While Biden planned to emphasize the dangers of northbound migration and the probability that migrants would be deported, the Central American leaders planned to ask Biden for a series of measures meant to ease migrants' paths to the U.S.
The Obama administration pledged $93 million in new programs to reduce violence. 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.
Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Carrera told The Associated Press 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. His 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.