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GUATEMALA CITY – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had a blunt message for three Central American governments: You must do more to stop migrants who enter the United States illegally.
"This exodus must end," Pence told the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador late Thursday in a meeting in Guatemala City.
Pence said U.S. officials were working to keep families together and welcomed legal immigration from their countries, but he urged the presidents to "tell your people that coming to the United States illegally will only result in a hard journey and a harder life."
He made the comments to Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, leaders of countries where economic struggles and violent crime have pushed many people to try to sneak into the U.S. in hopes of finding better lives.
The U.S. vice president said the Trump administration "will always welcome" immigrants who follow the rules in getting permission to enter the United States.
But, he added, the U.S. is determined to act strongly against those who don't.
"It is a threat to the security of the United States, and just as we respect your borders and your sovereignty, we insist that you respect ours," he said.
The three Central American countries are the home nations of most of the migrants detained and separated in recent weeks amid Trump administration policies that led to the separations of more than 2,000 children. Pence noted the White House's decision to reverse the policies.
Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador said one of his ministers had confirmed that the minors in the shelters had their basic needs covered, but he emphasized that "it's vital for their psychological health and their emotional health to reunite them immediately with their families."
Honduras' president said it is essential for his government to tackle the roots of migration and insecurity in a way that is not only good for the U.S. but good of the people of the Central American countries.
Earlier in the day, Pence was in Ecuador, whose leader he praised for improving relations with the U.S.
He also urged President Lenin Moreno to hold a firm line against neighboring Venezuela, which has been crumbling in economic and political crisis.
"The Ecuadorean people have shown remarkable compassion," Pence said, noting that 350,000 Venezuelans have fled to Ecuador, a country of a little more than 16 million people. "We must all take strong action to restore democracy in Venezuela."
Moreno said a solution to the Venezuela's crisis is ultimately up to its own people, but added that he and Pence agreed to work together in coordination with the Organization of American States to promote citizen rights and fundamental freedoms throughout Latin America.
Winning back trade privileges rejected by Ecuador's former president, Rafael Correa, were a central part of the talks for Moreno.
He was elected last year with Correa's backing but has since broken with his mentor in adopting a more business- and press-friendly stance that has earned him bipartisan praise in Washington as something of a bridge builder in ideologically polarized Latin America.
Pence said relations have improved under Moreno's leadership and noted their shared fight against international drug traffickers. He credited the new president with reversing a decade of failed policy and rooting out corruption.
During their private meeting, Pence raised the issue of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder who Ecuador has granted asylum, U.S. officials said.
Assange, whose leak of classified U.S. documents infuriated U.S. government officials, has been a sticking point between the two nations. He has been living under asylum inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London since 2012