By Justin Sink - 06/26/14 09:02 PM EDT
President Obama begged Central American parents to stop sending their unaccompanied children across the U.S. border, warning they faced danger and ultimately would be returned home.
“Our message absolutely is don't send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers,” Obama said in an interview with ABC News. “We don't even know how many of these kids don't make it, and may have been waylaid into sex trafficking or killed because they fell off a train.
“Do not send your children to the borders,” the president continued. “If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it.”
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, primarily from high-violence Central American countries, have flooded across the border this year. Under existing federal law, any children coming from Mexico are immediately returned, while others are sent to government detention facilities before being released to relatives or foster parents within the U.S., ahead of deportation proceedings.
“If they come from a noncontiguous country, then there's a lengthy process,” Obama said.
Republican critics have charged that the president’s immigration policies are responsible for the surge of unaccompanied minors. In 2012, the president unilaterally established a program allowing certain minors who entered the U.S. illegally to remain with legal status.
Those crossing the border now aren’t eligible for that program. And Obama denied his policies had exacerbated that problem, saying the influx reflects “the desperation and the violence that exists in some of these Central American countries.”
But officials have conceded that criminal organizations in Central America have wrongfully advertised that children would be allowed to remain in the U.S.
During a trip through South and Central America last week, Vice President Biden asked leaders there to “inform constituents of the dangers of putting children in the hands of criminal smugglers, to combat misinformation spread by criminal networks attempting to smuggle minors, and to address underlying causes of migration, including insecurity and lack of economic opportunity,” according to the White House.
He echoed that message in a meeting with faith leaders, law enforcement officials and refugee advocates Thursday.
“At our meeting with Vice President Biden today, we re-emphasized the dire and urgent need for immigration reform,” said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, the president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “The rising humanitarian crisis in the Southwest is just another sign that inaction is not an option.”