Central American Leaders Push Obama, Congress for Security Assistance

Central American migrants board a northbound freight train in Ixtepec, Mexico.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP

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Central American migrants board a northbound freight train in Ixtepec, Mexico.

Amid political paralysis over border security in Congress, the White House and DOD are forging ahead with Central American counterparts to address the crisis. By Molly O’Toole

How many presidents does it take to push an emergency border security proposal past a Congress consistently paralyzed by politics?

President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala, President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador will meet with President Obama at the White House on Friday to discuss the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have come to the U.S. since October.

But with members of Congress preparing to leave Washington for the long summer recess, they are unlikely to pass the president’s emergency funding request any time soon — if at all. The president’s meeting with the heads of state merely highlights that when it comes to urgent issues of security, the administration will step around a stalled Congress to move forward.

The Central American leaders are making the case in Congress and around Washington this week that they’ll need more U.S. assistance to address the security crisis in the region that has prompted the wave of children. Under Obama’s $3.7 billion request, an additional $161.5 million would be provided to the State Department’s Central American Regional Security Initiative, with $18.5 million to Honduras. Vice President Joe Biden also announced $9.6 million in new assistance to Central America, as well as $40 million dollars to Guatemala and $25 million to El Salvador under USAID.

Democrats on the Hill have bolstered the cause, arguing that rather than altering U.S. law to expedite deportations of these children, a more sustainable solution is curbing the violence and poverty that prompt them to come. Lawmakers argued from the floor Wednesday for the government to give the children due process and treat them humanely, but also to provide more resources to the U.S. military and State Department to bolster Central America’s institutions and counternarcotics efforts.

Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, which stretches from Mexico to all of Central and South America, told Defense One earlier this month that he did not have the resources to stop the illicit trafficking fueling the drug trade and mass migration and threatening U.S. national security.

But Republicans aren’t buying it.

They continue to claim that the Obama administration’s “amnesty” immigration policies have invited the migrant wave, and frame the emergency funding as more of the same. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Texas, said the Republicans’ measure would most likely slash the president’s request to around $1.5 billion. A House working group, which revealed its proposal on Wednesday, wants military assistance, too — in the form of National Guard troops deployed to the U.S-Mexico border, following the lead of Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Perry announced Monday he would send roughly 1,000 Texas Army and Air National Guard to his state’s border, which has been hit with the brunt of the migration.

There can be no national security without border security, and Texans have paid too high a price for the federal government’s failure to secure our border,” Perry said.

But the administration cited evidence last week that the flow of unaccompanied minors may be slowing, and as these immigrants are turning themselves into authorities, it’s unclear what role the National Guard can have. Air Force Maj. Gen. John Nichols told the Army Times that while the National Guard will be armed, they would only serve in observation posts.

That’s not to say the administration is not open to using military resources, or taking detours to get around political obstruction. As “not in my back yard” protests take place around the country in an effort to block authorities from finding additional locations to shelter immigrant children and families, on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren announced that the Defense Department will be expanding its agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services to house an additional 5,000 children on military bases until Jan. 31. The Pentagon has not yet determined which bases will be used.

The announcement came as the Pentagon kicked off Fuerzas Comando 2014 in Colombia, an annual SOUTHCOM military exercise conducted since 2004. Some 700 personnel from 21 countries — including Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Uruguay — are participating, focusing on combating terrorism, organized crime and illicit trafficking and improving regional security, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Myles Caggins.

But behind the deep military-to-military relationships in the region and renewed diplomatic efforts such as the White House meeting Friday is the push for Central American countries to build up their capacity to ensure their own security — a continued theme of the Obama administration’s second-term national security strategy that both parties can get behind: We can’t do it all, and we can’t do it for you.

“For reasons of national security and economic prosperity, the U.S. has a clear interest in helping Central American countries become safe and stable communities,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Thursday. “Unfortunately, the recent wave of illegal immigration has reminded us of how fragile these foundations are in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras … I reiterated with our Central American counterparts that it is they who must build a better future at home for their people, with the U.S. as a supportive partner.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he made clear to the Central American officials, “as the United States looks to increase security and development assistance to Central America, we need to know that our commitment is matched.”

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