WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama meets Friday with three Central American leaders to try to get control of an humanitarian crisis triggered by a tide of child migrants crossing the southern US border.
The arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors, most from Central America, has set off a political firestorm, entangling Obama in a bitterly emotional issue with no easy solutions.
His meeting at the White House with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador is expected to produce pledges of support, as well as a reaffirmation of Obama's appeals to parents not to send their kids north.
"It's an incredibly dangerous situation," he warned last month.
For Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, the child migrant phenomenon, grown "unprecedented" in scope, is closely connected to drug trafficking and the violence associated with it.
"But also it is a matter that arises, we believe, from the lack of clarity, or ambiguity, that has become the hallmark of the policies and the debates on immigration reform in the United States," he added on Thursday, during a visit to the US Congress.
Joining Hernandez at the White House will be Presidents Otto Perez of Guatemala and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador.
For the White House, the crisis is the visible symptom of a broken immigration system in desperate need of reform.
But while passage of comprehensive immigration reform seemed achievable a year ago, that's not the case today.
The Senate passed a bill calling for a drastic reinforcement of border controls, an increase in work visas for qualified immigrants, and a path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country. But it has run aground in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
And Obama, who made immigration one of the central campaign themes in 2008 and 2012, finds himself in trouble with mid-term legislative elections just around the corner as the debate over immigration takes a passionate turn.
Texas governor Rick Perry, a Republican, announced he is sending 1,000 National Guard troops to secure his state's long border with Mexico.
In southern California, several "anti-immigrant" movements have sprung up. "We want a fence not a reform" and "Return to sender" read signs carried by protesters.
New York's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, this week expressed shame at the sight "an angry mob in southern California (that) surrounded buses filled with frightened, hungry, homeless immigrants, shaking fists, and shouting for them to 'get out!'"
"It was un-American; it was un-biblical; it was inhumane," he said.
While several thousand children attempt to cross the US border each year, this year the flow has been on a different scale altogether.
At least 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained on the border with Mexico since October. The government expects the total to reach 90,000 by the end of September. Another 145,000 are projected to attempt the crossing next year.
The White House says the number of detentions of minors has dropped by half from June to July. But it is still too early to tell how long the "urgent humanitarian situation," as Obama calls it, will last.
Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the influx, and in particular the need for more judges to handle their cases. But discussions are at an impasse in the Congress.
Besides the war of numbers -- Democrats finally settled on $2.7 billion, while the Republicans are coalescing around a pared down spending package of as little as $1 billion -- the thorniest issue centers on the rights of minors once they've been detained.
Republicans want to simplify the expulsion process by amending a 2008 anti-human trafficking law that gives minors from countries that do not border the United States greater legal protections than those from countries like Mexico or Canada that do.
The White House is not opposed to a change in the law, but says the top priority should be the release of funds to deal with the immediate situation.
"The conversation has become more toxic and what Obama is dealing with now is layers of politicization of the issue," said Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution.
And time is running out. The Congress goes into its summer recess next week, and lawmakers do not return to Washington until September 8.
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