Remarks to the Press with Q&A by Vice President Joe Biden in Guatemala
Residence of the United States Ambassador
Guatemala City, Guatemala
4:37 P.M. (Local)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Hello, folks. Thank you for waiting. I appreciate it.
I’ve just finished, as most of you know, a day of meetings, and I would say very constructive meetings here in Guatemala. And I wanted to speak about one issue in particular that brought me here. I also wanted to thank the chargé for accommodating us and accommodating the civil society groups -- and the First Lady of Guatemala as well.
The United States, to state the obvious, is greatly concerned by the startling number of unaccompanied minors that -- children and teenagers who are making a very perilous journey through Central America to reach the United States. These are some of the most vulnerable migrants that ever attempt -- and many from around the world attempt -- to come to the United States. They’re among the most vulnerable. And the majority of these individuals rely -- we estimate between 75 and 80 percent -- rely on very dangerous, not-nice, human-smuggling networks that transport them through Central America and Mexico to the United States.
These smugglers -- and everyone should know it, and not turn a blind eye to it -- these smugglers routinely engage in physical and sexual abuse, and extortion of these innocent, young women and men by and large.
And they profit from the misery of these children and teenagers; these desperate, desperate young people. And the numbers are growing at an alarming -- the U.S. Department of Homeland Security apprehended 24,000 unaccompanied minors in the year from October of 2012 to the year -- to October, 2013. In that one year, they apprehended 24,000 unaccompanied minors at our border.
In eight months since that time, the number has jumped to 47,000 additional unaccompanied minors. We’re also seeing a rise -- generally mothers, who are traveling with their children from Central -- Mexico to the United States.
So I met today with the Presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, and the Honduran Coordinator General, the Mexican Secretary of Government. And President Obama had a chance to discuss the situation with Mexican President Peña Nieto last night, and I spoke at some length today on Air Force Two to the President of Honduras, President Hernández of Honduras. And we had a lengthy conversation about the issue.
We all agree -- people that are meeting today, the President Peña Nieto, President Hernández and myself -- everyone agreed, there was unanimity that the current situation is untenable and unsustainable. We also agreed that this is a matter of shared responsibility -- not just the United States, but shared responsibility of every Central American country and Mexico. And I will address in a minute, but we’re all committed to take both immediate steps in the crisis and long-term challenges we are -- that we’re going to have to meet.
I’m going to address the steps we’re taking on the immediate crisis in a moment, but in the meantime, here in Central America, I want to talk first about our work together to give citizens in Central America security and -- so that they can thrive -- and not feel the need or be compelled to try to get to the United States of America, or Mexico, for that matter.
I can’t imagine, I can’t imagine the desperation that leads a parent in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, to put their son or daughter in the hands of these criminals to take them on a perilous, hundred- and in some case thousand-mile journey to the border of the United States.
As I was on the plane, I read -- I got a briefing from Homeland Security. Just last night, they apprehended women and children hiding in the thicket on the Rio Grande who were suffering from dehydration and 100-degree heat. God only knows what would happen if they had been left there.
There is nothing humane about what these traffickers are doing. And I can’t imagine a parent, the desperation they must feel to hand your daughter over to one of these thugs, these criminals. But it’s clear we have to deal with the root causes, the root causes are what drives people -- what would drive a 17-year-old, what would drive a mother, a father to give a 10-year-old to these coyotes.
Many are driven by lack of physical security. The United States toward that end provides -- plans to provide 160 million more dollars this year for the Central American Regional Security Initiative to help countries improve citizen safety, governance and border security.
The United States will also move forward on projects totaling $83.5 million this year. In addition to improve citizen safety in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. This includes over $40 million over the next several years to Guatemala to target hotspot communities to reduce the risks, the risk factors for youth involved in gangs and drugs.
I presented today a map to all the leaders showing a direct correlation between the number of unaccompanied minors and where they came from. It directly correlates to the most dangerous cities in Central America. You can just map it. It’s clear. And so as I said, it’s incredibly important that we do our part to provide this kind of funding.
And in the case of Guatemala, it’s a $40 million additional commitment to target those hot spots to reduce the risk factors for youth involvement in gangs.
Others are driven to emigrate by lack of economic opportunity. That's been a story. Long before narcotrafficking -- a major problem in Central America, there was still tens of thousands of people over time -- Central America to the United States. So it’s not just -- it’s not just narcotraffickers and violence.
That's why in addition to our longstanding efforts to increase trade and regional economic integration, USAID will create a new public-private partnership through the Global Development Alliance mobilizing the expertise of businesses and local civil society to help reach at-risk youth.
I met today -- and I want to personally thank the First Lady of Guatemala for helping put this together -- I met today with representatives from civil society here in Guatemala to talk about how we can work together to address these challenges.
Now that sounds like sort of foreign policy State Department speak, doesn't it? Meet the challenges. We talked specifically about everything -- how to create boys and girls clubs, how to deal with violence against women, how to vet police forces so their corruption is eliminated. There are concrete things, and we stand ready to help do, to build institutions here in this country and in the rest of Central America.
But the decision lies in the hands of the leaders of each of these countries. Civil society has a critical role to play in these issues, and they're showing real leadership.
No fundamental social change occurs merely because government acts. It’s because civil society, the conscience of a country begins to rise up and demand -- demand -- demand change.
And the leaders I met with today in the other room are impressive, these members heading up various organizations. Civil society, as I said, has a critical role, and I agreed as I left with each of the members to send them the blueprints that helped us to give them some idea. We don't have all the answers, but to give them some help as to how we went about dealing with organized crime, violent gangs, providing an alternative for young children who are looking for a way out.
Even as we work closely with the countries of the region, the United States is also working urgently to address the issue at our border. On June 1, President Obama directed the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, to bring to bear the assets of the entire federal government of the United States of America. Secretary Johnson appointed one of the most competent managers that I’ve worked with in my entire career the head of the so-called FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a man named Craig Fugate, has an impeccable record, to coordinate this comprehensive government-wide response.
And right now Secretary Johnson and Cecilia Muñoz, the President’s domestic policy adviser, are on the Texas-Mexico border, getting a firsthand look at this crisis. It’s not their first visit, but that's where they are as I speak. Their trip coincides with new steps announced today by the U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security to enhance enforcement and removal proceedings.
Because one of the things we all talked today in our private meeting with the heads of state and their representatives, everyone agreed that these children should be reunited by their -- with their parents, with their parents in the country from which they came. Everyone agreed to that. You’re clearly not going to send a child back to a circumstance where there is no one there for them. But we do intend, and everyone agreed, it is necessary to put them back in the hands of a parent in the country from which they came.
Look, as I said, the Department of Justice, Homeland Security, this is what they're doing. They are enhancing the enforcement and removal proceedings because those who are pondering risking their lives to reach the United States should be aware of what awaits them. It will not be open arms. It will not be come on -- it will be, we’re going to hold hearings with our judges consistent with international law and American law, and we’re going to send the vast majority of you back.
We’re moving forward with a plan to surge government enforcement resources to increase our capacity to detain individuals humanely, and adults traveling with the children, to handle immigration court hearings in cases where these hearings are necessary, to do it as quickly as possible. In addition, we’re sending immigration judges, attorneys to represent these young people and families with young people, and asylum officers. They have a right under our law to make the case -- make the case that we’re here because we’re avoiding persecution. We’re avoiding something will physically affect our safety.
They're being assigned to process cases of immigrants apprehended at the border who are claiming credible fear, and are eligible to apply for asylum. But that decision will be made quickly, fairly, with -- but it will be made quickly. We are committed to complying with the law and all international relevant standards. That's how we do it.
But we are prioritizing the need to resolve these cases as quickly as position in light of the humanitarian crisis caused by the -- number of crossings. Make no mistake, once an individual’s case is fully heard, and if he or she does not qualify for asylum, he or she will be removed from the United States and returned home. Everyone should know that.
We expect many of the recent immigrants -- migrants I should say to fall into this category. My guess is a vast majority, and they will be going home.
Coming out of the meetings today, we will be working to do all of this in coordination with our partners. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras have all agreed to send additional consular officers from Guatemala, from Honduras, from El Salvador, send them to the U.S. border so that we can more quickly and humanely identify unaccompanied children and process their individual removal.
The United States is going to provide almost $10 million -- $9.6 million immediately to help the Central American governments receive, reintegrate and care for their citizens repatriated from the United States.
Finally and critically, all of us in our meetings today agreed to work to counter and correct the misinformation smugglers are propagating about U.S. immigration policy, and discourage families from sending their children on this perilous journey.
Look, the President of Guatemala announced, if memory serves me, that beginning in July, the first two weeks in July, there will be a major initiative in the media and in the public space here in Guatemala to make it clear what the facts are. The same commitment was made by the President of El Salvador and the Honduran representatives. Mexico is already doing this. We expect them to do it. We will hold them to that commitment. We’re convinced they will do it.
These minors that have recently come are not eligible -- they are not eligible to what’s referred to as deferred action. A deferred action process. Not if they arrived in the past seven years. Let’s get this straight. Any minor who arrived in the past seven years is not eligible for deferred action. No new immigrant since 2011 is eligible for the earned citizenship provisions proposed in the comprehensive U.S. immigration reform pending before Congress. Right, wrong, or indifferent -- those are the facts.
And putting children in the hands of smugglers and these thugs and drug traffickers is a reckless and dangerous undertaking for any parent to do. We will all be actively engaged in communicating this message in the United States, in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Honduras, and in El Salvador.
You know, as the world knows, my country welcomes legal immigration. As a matter of fact, we just agreed to take 70,000 refugees from other parts of the world. We are not an ungenerous country when it comes to dealing with the plight and the dire circumstances of people in other parts of the world. In fact, we consider -- we consider the welcoming of legal immigration a source of strength. It’s why America is so strong. It’s the constant infusion of new blood, new ideas, new peoples. And by the way, of the 11 million women and men living in the shadows of American society, and children, about 35 percent of these are Asian. This is not all Latin America, it is not all Hispanic. It represents all corners of the world, including Ireland and Africa, and other places.
So, folks, look, we believe these people, the 11 million in the shadows who have been there for a long time, deserve the dignity of being recognized and given a path -- citizenship that they have to earn: paying back taxes -- language -- a whole range of other requirements. But we believe they have a right to be put on that path.
We think it’s a moral imperative, but it’s also in the overwhelming naked self-interest of the United States. Every study shows they will contribute over $1.7 trillion dollars to economic growth in America, to the growth in the GDP. It’s estimated the GDP, if memory serves me, will grow -- I think it’s -- over the next 20 years because of this. It solidifies our Social Security system. It does not bankrupt it. It reduces our deficit, it does not increase it. So there’s both moral and practical reasons why this should happen.
But when children travel hundreds of miles to reach the United States without their families in the hands of criminals in the 21st century, that’s a tragedy we all must take responsibility for -- the country from which they come, and the country to which they are headed. I want to thank the leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras for working with me, for working with the United States to take this issue on that affects us all.
To my great -- how can I say it? To my great relief and thanks, they all agreed to take on specific responsibilities that will help us solve this problem. We anticipate they will keep those responsibilities because we’re devoting significant resources to this effort. And following these meetings, we’re looking to see what more we can do. We’ve agreed to all stay in contact. And God willing, we can solve this together.
I’m late, but you’ve been patient. I’ll be happy to take a few questions from you if you have any.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well -- been dealing with this issue for a long, long time. I mean, for two decades. The thing that was most welcome and appreciated, there were no demands. This was not a circumstance in which, like it used to be 15 years ago, where we’d sit in a meeting and it was all, it’s your fault, United States, we demand you do the following. There were no demands. There was an absolute recognition that there was a shared responsibility here. They talked among themselves about what more we have to do. I will not identify it because it was a private meeting but I guarantee you that two of the countries’ leaders said, we have to do more, we’re not -- these communities, we’re not cleaning up our institutions quickly enough.
It was an interesting thing to have an outsider sit in and hear them talk about, in a constructive way, what they’re not doing.
It is true they’re very concerned about family reunification, but they understand that that’s what the immigration bill does. It provides a legal way to do that. And when the issue was raised about -- and it was raised, well, again, I guess I shouldn’t identify without their permission, but you can go check -- when the issue was raised about reunification, it was clear that -- and they talked among themselves and to me -- that they had an obligation to identify the parent -- country who sent the child, and return the child to that parent.
There was hope that, if that wasn’t done, they’d be returned to the parent if they had one in the United States. But the interesting thing to me is that this is the first time -- and I look to my senior staff here in the State Department -- I don’t recall in the past where this has been so open and fulsome about the shared responsibility.
I acknowledged, by the way, and I’ll say it again, we have a responsibility. The United States has a responsibility and it goes to the second part of your question. There is no doubt on the minds of any of those leaders that we are treating these young people humanely at the border. They understood that the influx was beyond our capacity initially to absorb.
One of the leaders said, we don’t want them in cots in look-like cells, but we know what you’re doing. We talked about it, what the American government is doing to provide army barracks for them to be in. If they’re good enough for our military, they’re good enough for these young people. And how we’re doing everything in our power to deal with their immediate needs. And I invited them to come and see for themselves. The First Lady is going to see. Others have already gone.
And to the best of my knowledge, and I stand corrected if I’m mistaken, but there wasn’t one single suggestion of a single example of a child not being cared for; or us attempting to care for a child -- one of the leaders with whom I met today said, one of our problems is you treat them so well they don’t want to come home to the circumstance they left. Let me say that again. One of the leaders I met with said, you are treating them so well they don’t want to come home to the circumstance they left.
I hope that answers your question. I know of no assertion or accusation that we’re not meeting every international and national standard, going out of our way to treat these young people and the families accompanied with a minor fairly, humanely, and put them in circumstances that if, God forbid, our children were in that circumstance, we’d want them in. I’m proud of my country, and the way they’re handling this on that score.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Do we have a translator? Sorry. There you are, man. He’s the best, by the way.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Both very good questions. Both warrant at least an answer that would take an hour.
But I will be very straightforward with you. The truth is all the causes are part of the problem. The truth is the economic deprivation that exists in so many parts of Central America is a driving force. To deny that would deny history. It’s always been a driving force. You know -- I don't want to put you on the spot. You know it. Everyone here knows it. That's one issue. And it is exacerbated recently in some of the countries in question.
Two, violence is a part. It’s real. As I said the correlation between -- it’s not coincidental. These young people unaccompanied are coming from the areas -- I wish I had an extra one of those maps to leave with you to make a copy of, but there is a direct correlation between the -- most dangerous, according to you, the Guatemalan authorities, the Honduran authorities, and the El Salvadoran authorities. They say internally these are our most dangerous cities, our most dangerous places. There is a direct correlation between those dangerous places and where the unaccompanied youth are coming from. The vast majority -- you can just overlay it.
And they have a map. Maybe we can somehow get you a copy. But we have a map that shows -- just overlays exactly that, how many people, how many unaccompanied came from this city, and how dangerous this city is. The more dangerous the city, the more people are coming. So obviously that plays a part.
There is also a piece that it relates to -- I’m sure some of it relates to the desire to get -- to reunify, or in the first instance gain access to -- I’m sure that is part of it. There’s been too much time and effort made by the smuggling rings to say, mama, give me your baby. I’ll take him, her to the border. She will be able to get a pass.
Matter of fact, the reason why we know some of that is occurring when they get to the border, taken in and given immediate shelter, they get a notice that they have to appear. They think that is a pass, some of them. Or they think, oh, I got the pass. I’m in. It’s simply not true.
So I’m reluctant -- because I want to be completely honest with you -- to ascribe a percentage to any of one these. But there’s no serious person who would suggest that violence and economic deprivation are not a major reason for this happening -- a major reason.
Because well before there was any talk about the immigration law, there were still 24,000 people coming, for example in the year before. So anyway, as the -- all of the above.
Your second question, what can we do about that? What we can do about is I hope what I laid out. We can, A, first make clear in each of our countries in an unrelenting way, not just with a public service announcement, that there is no free pass, that none of these children or women bringing children will be eligible under the existing law in the United States of America. Number one.
Number two, we are saying we do know that this has to do with violent crime and with drugs and organized crime and corruption in your societies among police, among officials. And we’re saying, we are prepared. We’ve given you -- we’ve given. We’ve provided literally over time well over $200 million to say, here, $160 million this year. This is what you can do to deal with violence. We’re prepared to work with you. It could be more. I’m not suggesting that solves the problem. But I am suggesting it impacts on the problem.
The third thing we’re doing is we are continuing to have -- provide economic assistance. USAID is here doing everything from working with farmers to working with small business enterprises to try to get them up and running to be of assistance -- not only financial assistance, but to provide guidance as to how to change the circumstance.
I met with a young man in civil society. I’m embarrassed I cannot remember his name now -- but who works in the public-private sector here in Guatemala with businesses that understand this is a problem, and they're joining with government, and the use of the funding we’re providing to help try to change the economic circumstances.
So we’re doing all three. There is no single solution, and it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen overnight. But ultimately.
The last thing I told my interlocutors today, my fellow leaders of their respective countries is one of the things I discussed on my trip to Brazil and to Colombia was how can the major economies of South America and the major economies of North America help provide Central America becoming a bridge between the two of them, greatly raising the economic -- in Central America.
With regard to Colombian President Santos, who is an old friend reelected recently, we talked about the change in the election in Panama. The new President of Panama has decided rightly in my view that he is now prepared to provide Panama as the transit system for the generation of electricity from Colombia all the way through Central America, and from Mexico down. That could be -- to use the vernacular, that could be a game changer. That generates a circumstance when foreign direct investment is considering being here, they not only consider the issue of corruption, the issue of safety, they also consider access to energy. So there are larger, longer term, major initiatives that if we continue to work together from Canada, Mexico and the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, there is a possibility -- not a hundred years from now, but in the next three to 10 years -- to begin to change the economic circumstances and opportunity here in Central America. That's longer term.
But if you don't look down the road, if you don't plan for the future, you never get there. Thank you all so very much for you time. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
5:15 P.M (Local)