(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration demanded that three Central American nations that are the source of most illegal migration across the Mexican border crack down on gang violence and strengthen their law enforcement, hoping to reduce what Vice President Mike Pence called an “exodus” to the U.S.
Pence, after meeting with the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala at a summit in Guatemala City on Thursday, called the migrant crisis "a threat to the security of the United States, and just as we respect your borders and your sovereignty, we insist that you respect ours."
The three presidents, Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras, and Salvador Sanchez Ceren of El Salvador, pledged to work with Washington toward what Sanchez Caren called "a quick solution." They also expressed concern over the separation of families who had crossed the U.S. border without visas.
Pence urged the leaders to take specific steps to curb illegal immigration, including strengthening their borders; removing public advertisements by human smuggling organizations; and rooting out corruption.
He said that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who also attended the summit, would convene a ministerial meeting in Guatemala on July 10 to discuss ways to resolve the crisis.
Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, said he was “very hopeful” about that meeting.
President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off aid to countries of undocumented immigrants who come over the U.S. border. Pence did not address that issue publicly.
The vice president’s staff later released requests for each country. For instance, the U.S. asked Honduras "to pick an effective attorney general who will continue to prosecute corrupt officials and criminal organizations that enable smuggling networks to flourish."
Earlier on Thursday, Pence defended Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, countering a public uproar over the thousands of children who were separated from their parents.
Pence, speaking in an interview aboard Air Force Two while flying across Latin America, also said the U.S. was right to embrace Venezuelan refugees -- who say they want to return home after rule of law and freedoms are restored -- even as the administration takes a more aggressive stance toward Central American immigrants, who he said are seeking a permanent life in the U.S.
“There is no comparison between life in Venezuela under a brutal dictatorship and life in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” Pence said. “Venezuela has imploded into dictatorship and tyranny,” he added. “This is a dictatorship that is tyrannizing its own people.”
In the Air Force Two interview, Pence said that “porous borders and the loopholes in our immigration law work a great hardship on vulnerable families” by signaling that it’s worth undertaking a perilous journey with traffickers to the U.S.
“When we make it clear that we’re a welcoming nation but we welcome under the law,” he added, “I think that’s the greatest kindness we can give to families that would otherwise be preyed upon and are preyed upon now.”
Pence’s long-planned visit to Brazil, Ecuador and Guatemala was also aimed at bringing pressure on the Venezuelan regime. The trip, though, has largely been eclipsed by the Trump administration’s policy, now suspended, of separating undocumented parents and children in order to prosecute adults for illegal immigration.
A self-described born-again evangelical, Pence counts his religious faith as a bond with many people of the region. That was on display Wednesday as Pence and his wife Karen toured a new shelter in Manaus, Brazil, for about 120 Venezuelan refugees and hugged, prayed and spoke with displaced families.
He described the experience as deeply moving, recalling two conversations: one in which a father expressed his shame at telling his children he could not provide food for them; another in which a 22-year-old woman who spoke perfect English said she wanted to return to Venezuela once freedoms are restored.
At the summit on Thursday, he said that his wife had met and prayed with survivors of the volcanic eruption in Guatemala earlier this month.
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