Background Briefing on Unaccompanied Alien Children

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York City
September 23, 2014

MODERATOR: Okay. So thanks to everybody for coming by. We have a background briefing with [Senior State Department Official]. This will be on background, so no names or titles, but just so everybody knows who is with us. And [Senior State Department Official] will focus mainly on the meeting hosted by the Secretary this morning on unaccompanied alien children, but may touch upon a few other issues as well. So let me turn it over to [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks, [Moderator]. I really appreciate everybody being here. I know it’s an incredibly busy day.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I know. It’s packed, I know, and there’s other things going on, so I’ll try and be quick.

Let me just run through a couple things. This is a week in which you’ve got a lot of major meetings, and I just want to just explain to you how I think all of my stuff and the Western Hemisphere fits into them and the Secretary’s participation. This week, we’ve got major meetings on indigenous peoples, climate, the Global Counterterrorism Forum, obviously all of the other meetings of the General Assembly. And the Secretary chaired the Security Council on Iraq last Friday. The President will be at the foreign fighters meeting this week. We’ve got global health issues towards the end of the week, including discussions on Ebola. In every single one of those, countries of the Western Hemisphere figure importantly, and we’re working with them to move ahead.

And so I think the notion that all of these are reflected in individual bilateral meetings is not the case, but you will see encounters with and discussions with our Latin American colleagues, and obviously, the Canadians in every one of those. Obviously, in climate, you’ve got Lima, Peru hosting COP later this year. In discussions on indigenous peoples, it’s pretty obvious that the Latin American and Caribbean countries are very important. Even when we talk about counterterrorism, foreign fighters, the issues of ISIL, you obviously have – when we talk about our own homeland security and border security, of the greatest importance to us are our partnerships with both Canada and Mexico. Witness the rather disturbing and completely erroneous reports that we’ve had of things going on at our border which were certainly not true, right across the border in Mexico reported recently. So I do think that we continue to engage at very high levels with all of the folks of this region on those global issues as well as things much closer to home.

Getting to much closer to home, the Secretary met this morning with his counterparts from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as the Undersecretaries – two Undersecretaries from Mexico. The Foreign Secretary from Mexico was present at the beginning of the meeting and then had to leave to join his president. This was the third meeting the Secretary has had on this subject, beginning in July when he was in Panama for the inauguration of President Varela and held a meeting on this subject, and then of course participated July 25th with the President at the White House in his meeting with the leaders of those countries as we saw a crisis in the unaccompanied children this summer.

That crisis has to some extent eased, obviously, with the numbers decreasing greatly over the last two months for reasons that are complicated. Some of them clearly have to do with seasonal shift; some of them probably do have to do with publicity campaigns that these countries have undertaken and with other efforts. But what the Secretary shared with these countries was really his evaluation that the efforts we’ve made over the last three months have been unique in the sense that we all came together, we mobilized around a tragedy that was a tragedy on both sides of the border, and we’ve worked together in ways that were never possible in the past. And that includes with Mexico as well as the other three countries.

He commended all of the countries for the progress we’ve made, for the repatriation flights that they have accepted, and the reintegration that they’ve done – some of it with our assistance, which has increased over the past couple of months – for their ability to put out public awareness campaigns – again, a good deal of it with our support and assistance to try and get the word out that folks would not be able to stay in the United States and they would not be taking advantage of DACA, et cetera, which was information put out by smugglers erroneously.

But he also said that during this pause in the numbers, this is a temporary situation, and we have to use this time to put in place more efforts, greater efforts to get at some of the root causes of this, because we know that those numbers may rise again. And on our side, obviously, one of the things that we wanted very much was additional resources from Congress which were included in the supplemental that the President sent forward, which obviously have not been acted on by Congress. And so we will do what we can within our own budget, which is extremely tight, to try and increase our support for Central America. At today’s meeting, the acting deputy administrator of AID was able to announce $10 million in additional assistance to Central America for the drought that they are experiencing, because on top of everything else that those countries are going through there is an extraordinarily severe drought which threatens hunger in many of those countries, especially in Honduras. And that will go to the World Food Programme. And we’ve also reallocated some additional resources for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

But he also highlighted that the countries need to continue to do their own work on strengthening institutions, strengthening anticorruption efforts, that if we are successful in getting significant additional resources, they need to be able to use those resources efficiently and effectively to make a real difference.

The Foreign Minister of Honduras for the group led, and she presented the Secretary, on behalf of the three of them, with a plan. The plan is called The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle. The three countries are often referred to as the Northern Triangle of Central America. It is – it looks fairly comprehensive. Obviously, we have to take a look at the whole plan. We haven’t read all of it; it’s quite long.

But this is exactly what, obviously, we and others had been asking for these countries to do – to work with the neighbors and come up with what they thought they needed. It focuses on economic opportunity and development and employment opportunities, public safety and access to judiciaries, and strengthening institutions, which looks very much like the priorities that we, ourself, have identified. So we’ll take a close look at that now. And the Secretary said that he was encouraged by the production of such a plan and that we’d get back to them as soon as we could.

I think it – we also commended and we talked about the role of Mexico in this process. Mexico, as you know, has launched a very, very aggressive southern border strategy, both for their own security as well as to try and keep these young people from undertaking this incredibly hazardous journey. And I think – let me emphasize that the Secretary focused throughout on the human tragedy of this, not just the political or economic difficulties of this cause. These are large groups of young people as well as families who have made this journey.

And so Mexico as well has undertaken this. Some of you, I think, have seen the reports – most recently, among other things that Mexico has done – about cracking down on what’s known as la Bestia, the train, the Beast. That was one of the ways that migrants used to – or are still traveling north, riding on the top of the train most often, extremely dangerous and vulnerable to both exploitation and extortion along the way. They’ve also created guest worker programs, because there are lot of daily workers and seasonal workers, and increased security at their border crossings and informal crossings. So there are a lot of efforts underway.

And the Secretary finally committed to the foreign ministers that he would continue to fight for greater resources. He made the commitment to them that he would do everything he could. And he hoped that in seeing the commitment from them to work on institutional strengthening and transparency, we would be able to take advantage of this moment and the tragedy of it in some ways to really transform some of the institutions that have not really kept up with the economic growth that the rest of the region has seen, either north in Mexico or south in places like Colombia and the Pacific Alliance countries.

So I think it was a very productive meeting during an extremely busy week, and let me leave it at that.

MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. And we would like to turn to questions. Many familiar faces here, but if you could also just give your name and your outlet, that would be a big help to us.

QUESTION: I’ll go.


QUESTION: Lesley Wroughton. I’m from Reuters. Was there anything new that was discussed? I think that there is an issue here being discussed about doing – about processing children in countries. Was anything discussed on that? Was --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: There was a discussion in the meeting about what might be possible to offer to families in countries. And that would be the possibilities to offer to parents who might be in the United States legally. And Anne Richard, who’s our Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration, was talking about efforts that we’re continuing to make to look at possible pilot programs. But there isn’t – there’s nothing that we’ve been able yet to propose to individual countries.

But all of the countries have asked us generically: Can’t you try and find a way to make some kind of an offer of legal processing, right, for young people in country so they wouldn’t have to make this trip? And so there’s a number of things that we’re exploring, and we did discuss them. And they don’t just involve a bilateral program; they also involve discussing what the options are with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, with the International Organization for Migration, with UNICEF. What are the programs that are possible within countries for movement from one area to another, which has been done in countries from areas that are high danger to lower security risk areas? What are the possibilities for potentially bringing children to other countries? So all those are being discussed, but they weren’t discussed in great detail, but they were touched upon today.

QUESTION: Okay. And how much further really would you take that? I mean, where would the next step --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think the next step, to some extent, is further conversations with the international organizations and then back to the countries in the region. And also for our own purposes, we still have some more conversations to hold and development within the U.S. Government.


MODERATOR: Okay. Anyone else? All right then. Well, thank you very much [Senior State Department Official] and we’ll look forward to the next one with you.

I can give you a brief update on what is likely to be our next background briefing, so thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.