Biden vows to tackle unacceptable child migrant surge

GUATEMALA CITY - Vice President Joe Biden is demanding that Central American nations work with Washington to halt the cascade of illegal child migrants from the region from reaching the southern US border.

Biden issued his blunt call Friday in Guatemala as the White House announced new measures to speed up deportations of the child migrants, and as sharp criticism from opposition Republicans dashed any hopes of approving an immigration reform law.

"We're approaching this issue with a shared recognition that the current situation is not sustainable," Biden told Guatemalan President Otto Perez at a joint press appearance.

"It is unacceptable. And we have a shared responsibility to take significant steps to address this issue." Biden said that Central American child migrants leave their countries because of poverty, insecurity and a failure of the legal system.

Such comments likely irked Perez, who has blamed the problem on Washington's failure to reform its immigration policy and provide a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

Biden leavened his remarks by saying he understood the "burdens" the flow of immigrants had placed on Guatemala.

But he insisted that the root cause of the problem lay in Central America.

"This is a serious humanitarian issue standing alone all by itself, and ... it is a fundamentally shared problem for the United States, Mexico, and this entire region," Biden said.

Flood of underage migrants

US officials say they have detained more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors trying to illegally enter the country in the eight months ending in late May 2014 - nearly twice the number detained in the 12-month period ending in late September 2013.

Some enter the country and request asylum. Others contact relatives already in the United States and petition to remain.

There has also been an increase in the number of mothers traveling with their children, officials say.

At a later meeting with reporters in Guatemala, Biden said that up to 80 per cent of the Central American migrants "rely on very dangerous ... human smuggling networks." These smugglers "routinely engage in physical and sexual abuse and extortion of these innocent young women and men," Biden said.

In Washington, a group of lawmakers proposed spending between US$130 million (S$160 million) and US$230 million for security and economic programs in Central America to help stem the tide of undocumented migrants.

The White House also said the US government would allocate more money to hold and process the children and the adults who smuggle them across the border, and provide US$9.6 million to help Central American governments reintegrate the repatriated children.

Guatemala says around 1,550 of its emigrant children are currently in shelters in Texas and Arizona.

In a call with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Biden stressed that under the immigration reform measures currently before Congress, migrants who reach the United States without proper paperwork would not qualify for a reprieve or for legalization.

During the trip Biden also met Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, Mexico's interior secretary, and a senior Honduran official to discuss the immigration crisis, the White House said.

President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke with his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto ahead of Biden's meetings to discuss a "regional strategy" to tackle the problem.

US immigration reform gridlock

The flood of child migrants has injected fresh toxin into the debate over immigration reform, which has passed the US Senate but is stuck in the Republican-run House of Representatives.

Many conservatives say the latest crisis proves that the Obama administration is not committed to enforcing laws already on the books.

House Speaker John Boehner wrote to Obama on Friday and demanded that National Guard reserve troops be placed on the southern border to halt the migrant flow.

"The policies of your administration have directly resulted in the belief by these immigrants that once they reach US soil, they will be able to stay here indefinitely," Boehner wrote.