By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged the leaders of three Central American countries on Friday to work with him to stem the flow of child migrants who have surged across the U.S. border and warned that most of them would not be allowed to stay.
In a White House meeting with the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Obama had a tough-love message: his administration had compassion for the children, but not many would qualify for humanitarian relief or refugee status. Many of the migrants have fled poverty and crime at home.
The meeting came as Obama struggles to contain a border crisis triggered by the tens of thousands of children who have crossed the Texas border with Mexico in recent months. They have overwhelmed border resources and put election-year pressure on Obama to resolve it. "There may be some narrow circumstances in which there is a humanitarian or refugee status that a family might be eligible for," Obama said after talks with the leaders. "But I think it's important to recognize that that would not necessarily accommodate a large number."
Obama also said it is important to find solutions “that prevent smugglers from making money on families that feel desperate” and that make a dent in poverty in Central America. He would like to improve the U.S. legal immigration system in a way that “makes this underground migration system less necessary.” Obama and presidents Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador agreed to work together to attack the problem.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Hernandez said the migrant children with a parent in the United States had rights.
“They have rights, and we want them to be respected,” he said.
Washington needed to understand that the violence in Central America stemming from drug trafficking had enormous costs, he added. Obama acknowledged in the meeting that Washington had a responsibility to counter the drug trade.
Obama's drive to tackle the migrant crisis with $3.7 billion in emergency government funds is in trouble because the deeply divided Congress leaves on a month-long recess late next week and is increasingly unlikely to approve the money.
Republicans want Democrats to agree to a change in a 2008 anti-trafficking law to speed deportations before agreeing to a pared-down version of Obama's request. Democrats do not want to speed deportations of children with links to Hispanic-Americans, who are an important Democratic voting bloc.
One proposal under consideration at the White House is to start a pilot program in Honduras to permit children seeking refugee status in the United States to file a request while in their country.
"The idea here is that in order to deter them from making that dangerous journey, we'd set up a system in coordination with these host countries to allow those claims to be filed in that country without them having to make that dangerous journey," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
Immigration politics in the United States are historically divisive. The child migrant surge has erupted amid a debate over immigration reform. Since comprehensive legislation has stalled in Congress, Obama plans some steps to ease the overall U.S. immigration problem with a series of executive actions at the end of the summer.
Political divisions are so deep that a top White House adviser warned that Republicans might seek the president's ouster through impeachment when he announces the new actions aimed at getting around congressional gridlock.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are expected to authorize a lawsuit against Obama next week on charges he has overstepped his constitutional authority by signing a series of executive orders this year on issues such as raising the minimum wage for federal contract workers.
Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer, speaking at a reporters' breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor, said he could easily see Republicans moving to impeachment proceedings.
"The president acting on immigration reform will certainly up the likelihood that they would contemplate impeachment," he said.
He said it would be "foolish to discount the possibility" that Republicans will at least consider it.
Many Republicans, however, see the lawsuit as a way of restraining conservatives seeking impeachment, knowing a move that strong could backfire as the party seeks to take over the Senate in November congressional elections.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Frances Kerry)