By Patricia Zengerle
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday that Washington would work with Central American nations to address the root causes of an immigration crisis, but he kept up the Obama administration's tough message that undocumented children would be deported.
"We obviously understand people who want to do better, and who look for a better life," he said at a meeting with leaders from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the countries from which tens of thousands of children have fled to the United States in recent months.
"But at the same time, there are rules of law, and there is a process and there is false information that is being spread about benefits that might be available to these young people who are looking for that better life," he said.
Kerry was in Panama for the inauguration of the country's new president, Juan Carlos Varela, but he combined the trip with meetings to address a crisis that is straining U.S. resources and roiling partisan tensions in Washington over immigration.
Kerry met with El Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez did not attend, sending Foreign Minister Mireya Aguero Trejo de Corrales in his place.
President Barack Obama said on Monday he was sending Kerry to Central America to address the problem, in a speech pledging to act on his own to revamp the U.S. immigration system and protect the border after hopes of convincing congressional Republicans to pass broad reform legislation officially died. [L2N0PB1MU]
Kerry's visit to the region followed one by Vice President Joe Biden less than two weeks ago as Washington grapples with an issue that is straining its resources and complicating its relationship with Mexico and Central American allies.
Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are showing up illegally, often without parents, at the Texas border. Their numbers could reach 90,000 this year and 150,000 next - up from only about 6,000 in 2011.
U.S. officials stressed that they consider the crisis humanitarian, citing the danger for children of traveling thousands of miles in the hands of smugglers. "The lives of children cannot be put at risk this way," Kerry said.
However, Washington also wants Central American countries to do more to fix their economies, for example by integrating their trade, State Department officials said.
"Until the Central Americans really get past some of the arguing among themselves and focusing on going it alone ... they're not going to overcome these problems," a senior State Department official said.
U.S. Republicans blame lax border security and Obama's moves toward easing immigration rules for encouraging Central Americans fleeing poverty, crime and violence at home to risk the long journey north.
Obama blames Republicans for refusing to pass legislation that would address broader immigration issues, such as whether to provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
But activists and some of Obama's fellow Democrats in the U.S. Congress say many of the children would be eligible for asylum.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)