By Gabriel Stargardter
SAN PEDRO SULA Honduras (Reuters) - More than 40 Central American children were expelled from the United States on flights to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador on Friday, as the U.S. government stepped up its deportation of illegal child migrants.
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from the three violence-torn countries have been caught crossing the border this year, stretching U.S. border facilities and sparking fierce political debate about how to address the problem.
Thirty-three minors aged 6 months to 15 years along with 26 mothers landed on a U.S. flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the world's highest murder rate.
There, the first lady of the country, Ana Garcia de Hernandez, met them and immediately expressed concern.
"Many of these (mothers) took out big loans, so how are they going to pay them now?" Garcia said.
Friday's flights were the second lot after an initial group of deported children and women arrived in Honduras on Monday.
One of the women on the Honduran flight, 26-year-old Keli Orellana, said she was exhausted after spending eight days in a U.S. detention center with her 6-month-old baby son Iker Perez.
Returning to Honduras nearly $5,000 in debt to the guide or "coyote" who smuggled her to the border, Orellana urged U.S. President Barack Obama to give the migrants a chance. "He should let us stay because we're only going to work," she said.
But the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement said in a statement it expected more adults with children to be returned to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador soon, "based on the results of removal proceedings or expedited removal."
Migrants from Central America have fled rampant crime and brutal gangs in growing numbers since last October. Many have to pay smugglers with borrowed money in their bid to sneak illegally across the U.S. border with Mexico.
Five girls aged 7 to 16, two boys of 2 and 14 and five mothers were returned from New Mexico to Guatemala City along with other adults, the U.S. embassy in Guatemala said.
Afterward, the flight took three boys aged 4 to 14, a girl of 9 and four mothers to San Salvador along with 22 other women, according to U.S. officials in Guatemala and El Salvador.
This week's deportations come after U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending back illegal immigrants from Central America.
Obama will meet with the leaders of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at the White House next week to discuss cooperation on the influx of child migrants, administration officials in Washington said on Friday.
During the nine months ending June 30, more than 57,000 children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them from Central America, and double last year's count.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and the government has urged the United States to help the country.
Hector Espinal, a UNICEF spokesman in Honduras, was doubtful that families would be deterred by the deportations because violence and poverty remain deeply rooted in the country.
"The most likely situation is that these families will try to cross to the United States again," he said.
(Additional reporting by Mike McDonald in Guatemala City, Nelson Renteria in San Salvador and Julia Edwards in Washington; Writing by Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein; Editing by Dave Graham, Tom Brown and Ken Wills)