latin america

“Our first priority is to manage this serious humanitarian situation”

US Vice President Joe Biden explains his views on the child migrant crisis in an exclusive interview

US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the White House during a recent event.
US Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the White House during a recent event. MANDEL NGAN (AFP/Getty Images)

United States President Barack Obama frequently asks his number two, Vice President Joe Biden, to support him in the crises that continuously arise in the country – and abroad – at the most unexpected moments.

The 71-year-old experienced politician, long-serving senator (1973-2009) and potential presidential candidate has been chosen, among other things, to deal with Congress during long budget negotiations and to lead special commissions like the one Obama created to end gun violence in the country.

During the latest and still developing crisis, relating to the large flow of unaccompanied children across the country’s southern border, the president has sent his number two to Guatemala, where on Friday he will look for a solution to this growing challenge with regional leaders.

Biden has called for an emergency meeting with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina; El Salvador leader Salvador Sánchez Céren and the general coordinator of the government of Honduras, Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro. Three quarters of all children coming into the United States, who numbered over 47,000 between October 2013 and May 2014, according to official sources, come from these three Central American countries.

These children are some of the most vulnerable, and many become victims of violent crime or sexual abuse”

Before the meeting, Vice President Biden explained in an exclusive interview via email with EL PAIS what his plans are for solving this immigration crisis, one of the most challenging that the US has faced in the last few decades.

Question. How do you explain this sudden flow of unaccompanied child immigrants to the United States? Why now?

Answer. We are greatly concerned by the surge in unaccompanied children from Central America who are crossing into the United States. These children are some of the most vulnerable, and many become victims of violent crime or sexual abuse. There has also been a rise in the number of families that are making the journey. The vast majority of these individuals also rely on dangerous human smuggling networks to transport them up through Central America and Mexico. It is important to underscore that parents putting a child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization are putting that child’s safety and even their life in jeopardy.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehended over 24,000 unaccompanied children. By the end of May of this year, the number has nearly doubled – over 47,000 so far this year. Among the latest influx are growing numbers of female children and children under the age of 12. Many are escaping abuse, others are fleeing criminal gangs and violence, and others are victims of trafficking or abandonment.

The Department of Homeland Security has apprehended over 47,000 unaccompanied children so far this year”

The increase in unaccompanied minors migrating to the United States is driven by a number of factors, including the profound challenges of sustained violence and a lack of economic opportunities. There are also some misperceptions in Central America about US immigration policy. These migrant children are not eligible for the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) process or the earned citizenship provisions in pending comprehensive immigration reform legislation. All children and families are placed into removal proceedings.

Q. What will the United States do in order to stop the current crisis?

A. We view this as a matter of shared responsibility among all the affected governments. We are prepared to do our part, and we are ready to support partner governments as they step up to do theirs.

To address the situation, the president directed our federal emergency management agency to coordinate a government-wide response to this urgent situation. Our first priority is to manage the serious humanitarian situation by making sure these children are housed, fed, and receive any necessary medical treatment.

All arriving migrant children and families are placed into removal proceedings”

Secondly, the US government is working in coordination with Mexico and Central America to educate potential migrants of the perils of attempting such a dangerous journey, while informing them that they will not benefit from DACA or pending immigration reform legislation. We are actively communicating this message, and we are working through international channels to ensure that other credible voices do the same.

Third, our agencies are also working to speed processing and removal of migrants and further deter unauthorized migration. We will also be adding immigration judges, prosecutors, and asylum officers to help with efficient processing of these cases – while also evaluating whether some are eligible for protections like asylum. Detention facilities for family units will be humane and consistent with legal standards.

Q. Why doesn’t the US government grant a temporary protected status to these minors?

A. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are currently designated for Temporary Protected Status on the basis of crises that took place in the past. This allowed tens of thousands of individuals from these countries who were in the United States for many years already to remain here legally in a temporary status. Nationals from these countries who enter the United States today are not eligible, regardless of their age. We believe that there are more sustainable solutions to the current challenge than TPS, which is designed for things like environmental disasters and armed conflict.

The US government is working with Mexico and Central America to educate potential migrants of the perils of such a journey

Q. What specific measures will you ask from your partners in Central America in order to discourage minors from coming to the United States?

A. I am travelling to Guatemala to pursue an international response with the presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as representatives from Honduras and Mexico. Together, we will discuss measures to stem the flow of migrants taking the dangerous trip to the United States, while working to improve their security and economic opportunity at home. We will also address some of the misperceptions of US immigration policy. We know from the discussions we have had so far that our partners understand our shared interest in promoting safe, legal migration and discouraging illegal migration that puts their citizens, especially their children, at risk.

We have to see this both in terms of the immediate humanitarian situation and the longer-term underlying causes. I look forward to consulting during my visit on ways to enhance our existing work in the region to address some of the root causes, including the lack of citizen security, economic opportunity, and protection for children.

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