Secretary of State John Kerry warned his Central American colleagues Tuesday that the humanitarian crisis at the southwestern U.S. border is not over yet, even though the number of unaccompanied children trying to cross has fallen over the last two months.
Kerry met Tuesday morning with officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras while at the United Nations in New York, and praised their efforts to help reduce the number of unaccompanied children making the trek to the border. But according to a senior State Department official, some of that decrease is likely due to the warmer summer weather, which appears to have deterred many children.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned Central American officials on Tuesday that the number of illegal immigrants crossing the U.S. border could spike again. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The official said Kerry told representatives of the three countries that higher numbers could return.
"[Kerry] also said that during this pause in the numbers, this is a temporary situation, and we have to use this time to put in place more efforts, greater efforts to get at some of the root causes of this, because we know that those numbers may rise again," the official said.
When the numbers were spiking in the spring and early summer, the Obama administration blamed human smugglers for falsely advertising that children who make it into the United States would receive permission to stay. Since then, the Departments of State and Homeland Security have encouraged the three Central American nations to warn their citizens that this is not true, and that most of the people who try to cross will be returned.
Republicans put the blame more squarely on the Obama administration for indicating its support for relaxed immigration rules, which has the effect of enticing illegal immigrants to gain entry into the U.S. and take their chances.
Obama administration officials eventually started stressing to Central America that immigrant children will not be eligible to use the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA. That program lets younger immigrants remain in the U.S. and work, but it only applies to illegal immigrants who have lived in the country since 2007, and were present as of mid-2012.
The State Department official said much of the drop off in numbers at the border is likely due to putting out the word that "folks would not be able to stay in the United States and they would not be taking advantage of DACA."
While that answer will satisfy most conservatives, the official said the administration is consider another step that will likely anger the GOP. He said officials are still examining the possibility of setting up offices in El Salvador, Guatemala and/or Honduras to process children, a plan aimed at helping vulnerable kids avoid the dangerous trip across Mexico and into the United States.
He said all three countries have asked for this system to be established, but said the administration is "exploring" this idea.
"I think the next step, to some extent, is further conversations with the international organizations and then back to the countries in the region," he said. "And also for our own purposes, we still have some more conversations to hold and development within the U.S. government."
In early September, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that 66,127 unaccompanied immigrant children had been apprehended through August, with just one month left before the end of the fiscal year.
Some in Congress and the administration have predicted that number would reach 90,000 by the end of September, although it now appears that the total number will be somewhere between 70,000 and 80,000.