Under pressure to show more initiative in dealing with the border crisis, President Barack Obama is meeting Friday afternoon with the Central American leaders whose nations account for the largest numbers of people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the last year.
Obama, whom critics have accused of being too slow to act to the surge of immigrants when signs of it began to appear about two years ago, is expected to strongly urge the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to take firm steps to stem the tide of border-crossers.
Roughly 60,000 children have come alone illegally since October.
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.
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.
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.
“President Obama should exercise real leadership by working with his Central American counterparts to address the human rights challenges that are the root cause of displacement in the region,” said Human Rights First’s Eleanor Acer, who toured a new family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico this week.
“Because U.S. actions set an example for the rest of the world, President Obama should reaffirm the United States’ commitment to protecting those who flee persecution and violence, publicly stress the importance of fair asylum and trafficking protection procedures in the United States, and abandon rhetoric of deterrence.”
The White House meeting takes place a day after the three Central American presidents met with lawmakers, 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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.