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WASHINGTON — As Central American immigrants continue to flood into the United States illegally, only a few of the thousands being apprehended by the Border Patrol are being sent back home.

Ambassadors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have told U.S. officials their countries don't have the ability to handle huge numbers of repatriations now.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, believes new diplomatic protocols allowing far greater numbers of deportations urgently need to be worked out with the Central American nations. He said Thursday that Mexico has volunteered to work with the Central American countries to develop such plans.

The barriers to repatriation, including the immigrants' frequent lack of citizenship documentation, are causing great frustration within the Border Patrol. Agents are apprehending hundreds of Central Americans every day, only to see families turned loose with orders to appear for an immigration hearing at a later date, and unaccompanied minors transferred into a burgeoning care network run by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Border Patrol managers are lobbying within the Department of Homeland Security for a policy change that would result in more deportations. But both the great numbers of immigrants and the pace of diplomacy mean that could be a slow process.


Cuellar has met with the ambassadors of all three countries in the past week. He says that the ambassadors recognize the issue, but say their countries lack the infrastructure to accommodate large-scale returns, including computer systems to help ID returnees, and need time to develop it.

Vice President Joe Biden, who will be in Guatemala on Friday to meet with President Otto Perez Molina and other leaders from the region, is likely to raise the issue of repatriation numbers. He's expected to hear something very different in return.

"He's going to be told, 'you need to reform your immigration system,'" said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Reached in El Salvador Thursday, Olson said, "They are going to say, our kids should be able to be reunified with their families in the United States without having to make this dangerous journey."

A source with the Vice President's office said Thursday night that Biden will meet Friday morning with Perez Molina to discuss "the scale and scope of the problem, and review our bilateral relationship." Then, Biden and Perez Molina will meet with President Salvador Sanches Cerén of El Salvador; Coordinator General Jose Ramon Hernandez Alcerro of Honduras; and the Mexican Secretary of the Government, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, for a working lunch.

Cuellar said Thursday a policy change allowing more deportations must happen quickly.

"Pregnant women, women with kids, and unaccompanied minors — as long they know they're going to be released and allowed to stay here, they're going to keep on coming," Cuellar said.

The lawmaker said that Wednesday, a single group comprising 280 women and children was apprehended near Mission, Texas. "They know that once they're here, they're here," he said.

"I just don't see any sense of urgency in the administration to deal with this," he added. "It's great that Biden is talking, and that Secretary (Jeh) Johnson is going to the Rio Grande Valley. But overall the administration needs to be more engaged. They need to not just tour facilities, but talk to people in the communities that are being impacted. It's great to say, 'We need to take our time and get this right,' but take a look down there on the border, and tell me how long you'd want to wait for a solution if that was your neighborhood.

"We are experiencing a humanitarian crisis on the border but lack the necessary policies to address it."


He said that when he met with the ambassadors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, he was told that they are looking for more engagement from the State Department.

"They're saying, 'we need your help,'" he said, "but it's not my job, it's the job of the State Department. I'm sure they'll say, 'we're working on this' but I want to find a solution."

Cuellar said some of his Republican colleagues in Congress have said to him, "Henry, let's get the National Guard down there to help the Border Patrol,' but I tell them enforcement's not the problem. We can't enforce our way out of this."

A big problem is that many of the immigrants are carrying no official ID, which makes any attempt at repatriation more complicated. Many of the minors are trying to reunify with parents in the United States, and some do not have families back home to which they can return.

Cuellar said that only "about 24 or 25 planes a week" are ferrying deported Central Americans — almost all single adults — back to their countries of origin. And Olson said that "one or two" planes a day were arriving at a special reception center in El Salvador, which, he said, is accepting more returnees than any other country in the region.

Olsen said the countries "all recognize they need to accept the people the United States wants to deport. They're trying to develop programs to receive them in orderly fashion, and the United States is helping in those efforts. But no one is saying those efforts are completely successful."

A State Department spokesperson Thursday refused to discuss repatriation protocols, but defended the department, saying it "has been actively engaged for some time at the diplomatic level." U.S. diplomats are "working with the Central American and Mexican governments to inform the public about the dangers of undocumented travel, and also help the countries of origin address the root causes — 'the push factors' — of violence and lack of opportunity that drive this migration."

The State Department spokesperson emphasized new efforts in each country to dissuade people from migrating to the United States illegally.

"Cooperation has been excellent," the State Department spokesperson said. "All four governments are seized with the importance of stemming this flow of children. The U.S. government alone cannot solve this issue, and we expect continued close collaboration."

But the migration shows little sign of abating. In May, some 47,000 Central American migrants were apprehended along the Texas border, including about 9,500 unaccompanied minors.

The embassies of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador did not respond to requests for comment.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Thursday, "The Administration's selective enforcement of our immigration laws has not only jeopardized public safety and created this crisis, but has now undermined our standing on the international stage. President Obama must immediately present a plan to swiftly deal with this crisis, including a strategy for family reunification and safe repatriation of those who have no legal or humanitarian right to remain in the United States."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in Washington on Thursday, said: "This unaccompanied alien children issue has the potential to be an absolute catastrophe. A question ... that needs to be asked is, diplomatically, why are the governments of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico allowing this to happen?"

The Wilson Center's Olson said that even though the United States has a strong protocol in place for the repatriation of Mexican nationals, it is not a plan to be emulated.

"It's not a very well-thought-out process," he said. "We repatriate Mexicans who crossed in California and Arizona in nighttime deportations from South Texas to Reynosa, where they know nobody. They're dumped off in the middle of the night at a time when they're vulnerable ... they have no place to go and they're sitting ducks for organized crime."

He said the Central American countries of origin, similarly, are worried that if the minors are returned with no point of contact, "They'll be turned loose to the gangs."

But a Border Patrol manager, watching planes take off recently from the Rio Grande Valley, ferrying immigrant minors to a facility in Arizona, sighed and said, "More of these planes should be heading south."


(Email: david.mccumber(a)hearstdc.com)