TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) - After meeting U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, Honduran President Juan Hernandez sees little hope of an immediate solution to stemming a wave of child migrants fleeing misery and violence in Central America for the United States.
Joined by his counterparts from El Salvador and Guatemala, Hernandez met with Obama and U.S. lawmakers last week to discuss how to confront an unprecedented surge in child migrants that has overwhelmed border resources and ignited a fierce political debate in the United States over what to do with the children.
In an interview with Reuters, Hernandez said Obama offered the presidents no explicit help. The Honduran leader said political bickering between Democratic and Republican lawmakers was killing the chances of any short or long-term fix to the crisis.
“I haven’t lost hope, but I thought by this stage, we would already have our first concrete results in terms of dealing with this crisis,” Hernandez said late on Thursday in his dark-wood, oval shaped office at the presidential residence.
“This is a huge monster with one foot in Central America and Mexico, and the other foot in the United States,” he said. “As time passes, this problem is only going to get worse.”
Obama wants $3.7 billion in emergency government funds to tackle the child migrant crisis, but the deeply divided Congress, which is due to leave for its summer recess on Friday, has not yet decided whether to approve it.
If approved, Hernandez said, Honduras, a poor and violent country with the world’s highest murder rate, would see about $300 million of that money to spend on receiving children and their families and reintegrate them into society.
“President Obama is urging Congress to approve resources,” Hernandez said. “But the problem is that in Congress, on the side of the Republicans, we’re not hearing the same, and for a definitive solution to be reached ... they need to work in unison and I don’t feel that is happening.”
Republicans want to beef up security on the U.S.-Mexican border to curb the influx of migrants and change a 2008 law so that immigrants can be deported more quickly. They have also criticized Obama for not acting fast enough to get to grips with the crisis.
The chances of reaching a bipartisan solution in Washington is further complicated by the fact that both parties have their eye on the 2016 election, Hernandez said.
To be sure, successive Honduran governments have failed to curb the exodus northward and lower violence.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have been apprehended at the U.S. border since last October. Many are fleeing intractable poverty and widespread gang violence that has turned parts of Central America into one of the most lawless regions in the world.
According to the United Nations, Honduras saw 90.4 murders per 100,000 people in 2012, way higher than any other country.
For many years, gangs like “Calle 18” and “Mara Salvatrucha” have run riot across the country, extorting, selling drugs and running guns. Formed in the 1980s in U.S. prisons by Central American migrants, the gangs later blossomed into international franchises as members were deported back home.
But the security situation deteriorated after a 2009 coup that destabilized the country, allowing Mexican drug cartels to expand their operations along the country’s wild Caribbean coastline, where they receive planeloads of Andean cocaine headed for the United States.
The damage done by the drugs trade in the region has already led some regional leaders, like Guatemala’s President Otto Perez, to speak openly about the prospect of legalization.
Hernandez said he was unconvinced by the argument for drug legalization, but he thought it unjust that some states in the United States had legalized marijuana while in countries in Central and South America it remained illicit.
“I think we need to have a very serious discussion about it, because it’s not fair,” he said, adding that talks about unifying drug policy across the region needed to start soon.
Hernandez acknowledged that there was a joint responsibility to tackle the surge of child migrants, with Honduras needing to play its part. Impunity and corruption are rife, with the streets flooded with guns. But, he said, Honduras wasn’t alone.
“I think certain authorities in Mexico, certain police, could do more,” Hernandez said. He did not spell out what he would like them to do, but he said talk of efforts to limit access to trains, known as “La Bestia,” that carry migrants north through Mexico was a step in the right direction.
He also felt that the United States, a country built on immigration, should be grateful to Hondurans who seek to work there as they benefit the U.S. economy.
“It strikes me as a double standard to say, ‘We need workers, we contract people as domestic workers, cooks, in the countryside, or in construction,’ but then also to say publicly that those same people shouldn’t be allowed to enter,” he said.
(This version of the story fixes a spelling in paragraph 3.)
Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Ross Colvin