"We obviously understand people who want to do better, and who
look for a better life," Kerry said as he met leaders from Honduras,
El Salvador and Guatemala, countries from which tens of thousands of
children have fled to the United States in recent months.
"But at the same time, there are rules of law, and there is a
process and there is false information that is being spread about
benefits that might be available to these young people who are
looking for that better life," he added.
Kerry was in Panama for the inauguration of the country's new
president, Juan Carlos Varela, and he combined the trip with
meetings to address a crisis that is straining U.S. resources and
roiling partisan tensions in Washington over immigration.
Kerry met with Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and
Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. Honduran President Juan
Orlando Hernandez did not attend, sending his Foreign Minister
Mireya Aguero Trejo de Corrales instead.
President Barack Obama said on Monday he was sending Kerry to
Central America to address the problem, in a speech pledging to act
alone to revamp the U.S. immigration system and protect the border
after hopes of persuading congressional Republicans to pass broad
reform legislation officially died.
Kerry's visit followed one by Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala
on June 20 to discuss the exodus of children that is also
threatening to complicate Washington's ties with its allies in
Mexico and Central America.
The absence of Hernandez raised some eyebrows after the new Honduran
president also skipped the meeting with Biden while on a trip to the
World Cup in Brazil. That followed criticism of the United States in
his inaugural address in January, when he said Central America was
suffering from U.S. drug consumption.
Asked about the Panama talks, Honduran deputy foreign minister
Roberto Ochoa told Reuters that protocol dictated that Aguero meet
Kerry and that Hernandez wanted an "informal private meeting" with
the U.S. secretary of state to discuss migration.
"There's a way of communicating among equals, and this is an old
practice in relations between countries," Ochoa said.
Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and
Honduras are showing up illegally, often without parents, at the
Texas border. Their numbers could reach 90,000 this year and 150,000
next - up from only about 6,000 in 2011.
[to top of second column]
U.S. officials stressed that they consider the crisis humanitarian,
citing the danger facing children traveling thousands of miles in
the hands of smugglers. "The lives of children cannot be put at risk
this way," Kerry said.
However, Washington also wants Central American countries to do more
to fix their economies, for example by integrating their trade,
State Department officials said.
"Until the Central Americans really get past some of the arguing
among themselves and focusing on going it alone ... they're not
going to overcome these problems," one said.
U.S. Republicans blame lax border security and Obama's moves toward
easing immigration rules for encouraging Central Americans to risk
the long journey north to escape poverty, crime and violence at
Obama blames Republicans for refusing to pass legislation that would
address broader immigration issues, such as whether to provide a
path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the
Activists and some of Obama's fellow Democrats in Congress say many
of the children would be eligible for asylum.
(Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Reporting
by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Mohammad
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