The Obama administration is floating the possibility of screening thousands of children in Honduras to consider allowing them to enter the United States on refugee or humanitarian grounds.
By focusing on the Central American countries from which the children are fleeing, the proposal, first reported by The New York Times, would represent a major shift in approach to stemming the flood of unaccompanied minors pouring into the United States. White House officials hope that by turning attention to the immigrants' countries of origin, children who are not eligible for emergency humanitarian relief would be deterred from making the treacherous journey through Mexico before being turned away at the U.S. border. Children who qualify would likely be afforded an alternate route to safely escape Central America, which has some of the world's highest murder rates.
Though officials stressed that the White House has not made a final decision, they said the changes could be enacted through executive action and would not need congressional approval so long as the cap on refugees allowed into the U.S. does not increase.
"If we were to do anything in this space it would be a small program to provide a legal ability for folks who truly qualify as refugees to come and that's likely to be a small number," White House domestic policy adviser Cecilia Muñoz told MSNBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart Friday.
The plans emerging out of the White House are pilot programs for Honduras, but it is unclear whether they would be mirrored in the two other countries where the majority of unaccompanied minors are fleeing, Guatemala and El Salvador, a White House official told NBC News’ Chuck Todd. President Obama is meeting with the leaders of those three countries at the White House Friday afternoon to discuss the crisis at the border and the extreme violence and crime in those countries that are driving the children out.
“Your country here in the United States is the largest consumer of drugs. And what happens with that is you managed to resolve the problem by separating the violence from the consumption of drugs and for many public officials here the problem is a matter of health,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez told MSNBC’s Diaz-Balart ahead of the meeting at the White House. “But what is it for us in Central America? It’s a problem of life and death.”
"It’s an acknowledgement, which is a first so far by this administration, that these kids qualify for international protection."'
The plan would give the administration an opening to skirt having to change a 2008 human trafficking law that grants increased protection to children fleeing from countries that do not share a border with the U.S. The law has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks as Washington scrambles to present legislation to tamp down on the number of children making the journey on their own after more than 57,000 migrant kids were caught at the southwestern border since October.
House Republicans gathered for a conference meeting Friday to map out a legislative solution to the crisis amid divisions over the appropriate scope of the lawmakers' response. A working group of House Republicans unveiled a set of recommendations earlier this week to make alterations to the 2008 trafficking law in order to speed up deportation proceedings for children apprehended at the border.
More conservative factions of the Republican Party could pose a threat to legislative action on the border before lawmakers leave Capitol Hill for a month-long recess in August. The administration has said that funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement is on track to run out by mid-August, while money for Border Patrol could run dry by the following month.
The White House is waiting on Congress to green-light a $3.7 billion request for emergency funding to cope with the children already apprehended at the border. Congressional Republicans have stalled on the measure saying it is too costly and must also include provisions to expedite removals for children coming from Central America. Senate Democrats are rolling out a funding bill set a billion dollars below President Obama's asking price, but do not plan to include alterations to the 2008 law.
Some Democrats and human rights groups have warned that making changes to the trafficking law could cut down on due process rights and potentially lead to the deportations of a number of children who would otherwise qualify for humanitarian relief. For Michelle Brané, director at the Women’s Refugee Commission, reports of the administration's pilot program was a welcome start.
“It’s an acknowledgement, which is a first so far by this administration, that these kids qualify for international protection,” Brané said. “You need to be careful to make sure the process is fair and that you don’t block out all due process for those who do come to the border.”