Guatemala (AP) – The U.S. will start to detain families at the border instead of releasing them on their own recognizance, warned Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala City, where he held a multilateral meeting Friday with Guatamala's president Otto Perez Molina, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and high-ranking ministers from Honduras and Mexico.
The summit of sorts is part of a regional public-relations campaign launched by the Obama administration to stem a flood of Central American children and families that has overwhelmed the U.S. immigration system.
After weeks of insistence that criminal violence was responsible for the surge of Central American migrants, the U.S. is now trying to fight the widespread belief 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.
President Perez Molina asked the U.S. to start a temporary work program for Guatemalan migrants and grant "temporary protected status" for Guatemalan migrants. Salvadorans and Hondurans can apply for that status, which offers some protections against deportation.
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 20,000-plus unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador detained at the U.S. border last year was more than 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 El Salvador and $18.5 million to build 77 youth outreach centers in Honduras.
"We're approaching this issue with a shared recognition that the current situation is not sustainable. It is unacceptable. And we have a shared responsibility to take significant steps to address this issue," Biden said after meeting with Perez Molina. "But I want to make clear, Mr. President, the United States recognizes that a key part of the solution to this problem is to address the root causes of this immigration in the first place. Especially poverty, insecurity and the lack of the rule of law."
The vice president's visit coincided with the arrival of two flights carrying at least 250 migrants deported from the U.S. Guatemala'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," Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said Thursday.