SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The United States deported a group of Honduran children Monday in the first flight since President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending home illegal Central American immigrant children.
Fleeing violence and poverty, record numbers of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed into the United States over the past year, testing U.S. border facilities and sparking intense debate about how to solve the problem.
Monday's charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, deported 17 Honduran adult women, as well as 12 girls and nine boys, between the ages of 18 months and 15 years, the Honduran government said. Leaving the airport and looking happy, the children slowly got onto a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.
During the eight months ending June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S. border with Mexico, most of them from Central America. That was double the previous year's tally, and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through. The Obama administration projects that without government action, more than 150,000 unaccompanied children under age 18 could flee the three nations next year.
The flight departed as Mr. Obama faces increasing pressure to tackle the surge of unaccompanied minors. Immigrant advocates have called upon the president to address the humanitarian needs of the migrants. Republicans in Congress have blamed the crisis on Mr. Obama's immigration policies and have demanded that he secure the border. The Obama administration has stressed that Central American children who cross the border illegally will be sent home, and last week said it would speed up the deportation process.
In Washington, two Texas lawmakers say they will introduce legislation today to speed the deportations. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and Republican Sen. John Cornyn said in a statement that they will propose legislation that would amend a 2008 law meant to protect children from trafficking.
While a number of congressional Democrats oppose such a change, Mr. Obama supports it. Republicans including Arizona Sen. John McCain say it’s a priority as the United States tries to stem the flow of migrant children.
Mr. Obama requested $3.7 billion in emergency funding last week to help officials cope with the influx that has strained resources along much of the southern border. But House Appropriations Committee chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said Friday that $3.7 billion was “too much,” and that Congress probably won’t provide all of it. On Monday, Mr. Rogers said he didn’t know how much money the House will propose, or when the funding measure will be announced. “We are combing through the numbers,” he said in an interview.
A House task force led by Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, who traveled to Guatemala over the weekend, plans to give an update to House Republicans today. Mr. Rogers said a bill may not be announced this week, depending on how long it takes the task force to complete its work.
In addition to reviewing the 2008 law, Ms. Granger’s working group is considering a recommendation to overturn Mr. Obama’s 2012 directive to stop deporting children previously brought to the United States illegally by their parents, Homeland Security Committee chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, said last week.
The child deportations proposal by Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Cuellar would allow U.S. agents to turn back Central American children arriving at the border. It would provide a court hearing for those who don’t voluntarily return to their home country, Cornyn spokeswoman Megan Mitchell said.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, said last week that quickly turning children away would deny legal representation to those fleeing violence and poverty. About three-fourths of the children arriving at the U.S. border came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Under current law, the unaccompanied children must be handed over to the Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered from gang violence and the predations of Mexican drug cartels that use the region as a staging post for their trafficking operations.
Honduran President Juan Hernandez, in an interview published Monday, blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence and ramping up migration to the United States. His wife urged the United States to do more to help. “The countries consuming drugs need to support [us] and take joint responsibility because, if there wasn't demand, there wouldn't be production, and we wouldn't be living like we are," first lady Ana Hernandez said as she awaited the children at the airport.
Bloomberg News contributed.