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SAO PAULO – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence thanked Brazil on Tuesday for welcoming Venezuelans fleeing their country's collapse, while warning Central Americans running from violence in their homelands not to attempt to enter the United States illegally.
Pence announced that the United States will provide nearly $10 million more to support Venezuelan migrants, including $1.2 million that will go to Brazil, but he urged Central Americans to "build your lives in your homeland."
The seemingly contradictory messages underscored the delicate dance the United States is trying to perform: It wants to punish and isolate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government while mitigating the effects on the Venezuelan people. At the same time, it wants to stem the flow of migrants illegally crossing its own borders.
Addressing reporters after his meeting with Brazilian President Michel Temer, Pence said he had a message "straight from (his) heart" for Central Americans, who account for many of those crossing from Mexico into the U.S.
"Don't risk your lives or the lives of your children by trying to come to the United States on a road run by drug smugglers and human traffickers," he said. "If you can't come legally, don't come at all."
During their meeting, Pence and Temer spoke about Brazilian children separated from their parents who were detained while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Temer told reporters that he asked for Pence's "special attention to secure the rapid reunification of families." Temer offered Brazil's help in repatriating Brazilian minors.
Venezuela, which is experiencing an economic collapse worse than the Great Depression, was supposed to be the focus of Pence's trip to the region this week before controversy over American immigration policies in recent weeks forced the vice president to shift gears. The Trump administration wants to ramp up the pressure on Maduro, who recently won a second term in an election condemned as illegitimate by the U.S. and other countries.
"Venezuela's collapse is creating a humanitarian crisis leading to widespread deprivation, the denial of basic services and starvation," Pence said. "It has spurred the largest cross-border mass exodus in the history of our hemisphere."
The vice president praised Brazil's support of economic sanctions against its neighbor and for taking the lead in efforts to isolate Maduro, even as he said Brazil and other nations in the region should do more. Pence will visit a center for Venezuelan migrants in the Brazilian Amazon on Wednesday.
It was always unclear what could be achieved in U.S.-Brazil relations on this trip given that Temer is deeply unpopular and a lame duck ahead of October elections, and the leaders made only vague statements on issues not related to migration. Both said they agreed to increase space cooperation and to work to lower trade barriers after the U.S. imposed restrictions recently on imports of Brazilian steel and aluminum, though they gave no details.
Pence's visit comes at a time when soccer-mad Brazilians have their focus on the World Cup in Russia, where Brazil plays Serbia on Wednesday.
During initial comments to the press, Temer joked that he hoped Pence would support Brazil's team if it goes all the way. Pence said he would root for Brazil — while he is on Brazilian soil.
Pence next heads to Ecuador, where he is expected to continue to call for more pressure on Venezuela.
On Thursday, in Guatemala, Pence will meet with the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras and the vice president of El Salvador to address immigration to the U.S.