Vice President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials met Friday with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in the second prong of the administration’s strategy, aimed at helping Central American nations alleviate the poverty and crime believed to have helped drive the exodus toward the U.S. in Guatemala. The plan calls for $40 million in U.S. aid to reduce youth involvement in gangs and promote other security improvements.
Similar programs are aimed at El Salvador and Honduras, which also are seeing expanded migrant outflows.
The number of Central American children caught crossing the border illegally last year surpassed the number from Mexico — 21,000 from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, compared to about 17,000 from Mexico.
Under U.S. law, unaccompanied Mexican children can be returned to their homeland immediately, but children from other countries must first be taken into U.S. custody. By law, Customs and Border Protection can hold them for only 72 hours, after which they must be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, which finds beds for them in temporary shelters.
More than 90 percent of the children are later placed with a parent, relative or sponsor, according to statistics provided by Kids in Need of Defense, a legal advocacy group.
Mayorkas could not say Friday how many released detainees are showing up for subsequent immigration court proceedings.
By law, those arriving now are interviewed to see if they are eligible for asylum. They can claim they have a “credible fear” of returning home that immigration courts must address before they can be deported, posing a challenge to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other agencies as their numbers increase.
Mayorkas said the government will be sending more officers to hear these asylum claims and screen out those ineligible.
“Many individuals from Central America are found to be ineligible for these forms of protections and are, in fact, promptly removed,” he said.