Background Conference Call on the Vice President's Upcoming Trip to Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic
4:30 P.M. EDT
MS. PIETRANTON: Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks for joining us on Father’s Day. This conference call is to discuss the Vice President’s trip to Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic. The call is on background and our speakers should be referred to as senior administration officials. They’ll speak for a few minutes, and then take some questions.
With that, I’ll turn it over to our first speaker.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, everyone, for joining us on Father’s Day, to the fathers out there. I’ll just take a few minutes to walk through the context and the stops on the trip, and then we’d be happy to take a few of your questions.
The Vice President’s trip, which starts tomorrow morning, will take him to Brazil, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. And we’ve now added a fourth stop in Guatemala on June 20th at the end of the trip, which I’ll talk more about during these comments.
This will be the Vice President’s second visit to the region this year, his eighth visit since 2009. And it’s part of what has been one of the most sustained periods of high-level activity in the Western Hemisphere by any administration in recent memory -- a period that has included the President’s February 19th visit to Mexico for the North American Leaders Summit, a May 12th Oval Office meeting with Uruguayan President José Mujica, and the Vice President’s March trip to Chile for the inauguration of President Michelle Bachelet, as well as a number of calls and meetings between the Vice President and regional leaders.
You’ve all seen our stepped-up pace of engagement, but I think it’s really worth underscoring the unprecedented nature and level of engagement by this administration to advance our relationships with our friends and partners in the region, and also to underscore the active pace of engagement behind the scenes that the Vice President and President had been undertaking.
Just this past week, the Vice President had his second meeting with members of Congress to consult on a range of issues related to the region, both ongoing challenges as well as the enormous opportunities that the region presents for advancing the shared agenda. And whether it’s consulting with the President of Chile, Mexico, and Peru to work to conclude the Transpacific Partnership negotiations, or working with the Cabinet to advance the agenda of the U.S.-Mexico high-level economic dialogue, the Vice President, the President, and a range of senior officials at the White House have been deeply engaged in trying to pursue a very ambitious agenda related to Latin America and the Caribbean. And that is fundamentally because the President and the Vice President believe that we have to be centrally committed to the project in building a hemisphere that is middle class, secure and democratic, from Canada to Chile and everywhere in between.
So just to walk through each of the stops on this trip -- on June 16th, tomorrow, the Vice President will make his second visit to Brazil in as many years. He will fly to Natal to watch the U.S.-Ghana match, and I suppose everybody can probably guess which side he will be rooting for. He will then fly on to Brasilia, where, on June 17th, he will meet with President Dilma Rousseff and Vice President Temer. The Vice President and President Rousseff last met in Chile in March, and spoke by phone on May 8th. He has great respect for both President Rousseff and Vice President Temer, and looks forward to the meeting.
The Vice President sees this as an important opportunity to consult on the full range of issues on our bilateral agenda on everything from energy and economics, to science and technology, to regional and global issues. And the fact that he is making this trip at this time is a reflection of the importance that the President and the Vice President place on moving the U.S.-Brazil relationship forward. They both see -- both the President and the Vice President see a great opportunity to continue building a global partnership between two strong, diverse democracies, and it will be a full agenda when he arrives in Brasilia on Tuesday. And we’ll look forward to reading out those meetings after they take place.
We’ll arrive in Bogota, Colombia on the evening of June 17th, two days after the June 15th presidential run-off election. The Vice President wanted to do this to demonstrate to the Colombian government and to the people of Colombia that the United States will always be first in line to support their aspirations. He looks forward to following up on his numerous discussions with President Santos on finding new ways to advance the bilateral partnership, whether it’s on economic or security matters, on energy cooperation, and the range of other issues that Colombia and the United States are (inaudible.)
This will be the Vice President’s first trip to the Dominican Republic, and while he is there, the Vice President and President Medina will have a number of issues to discuss both bilaterally and regionally. More than 1.5 million Dominicans and their descendants live in the United States. Over 250,000 U.S. citizens live in the Dominican Republic. And about a million and a half U.S. tourists visit every year. And as a signatory of the Central American Dominican Republic FTA, we enjoy close trade ties with the DR.
The Dominican Republic is a Caribbean country, but it also currently holds the presidency of SICA, the Central American Integration System, which provides an opportunity for the Vice President to discuss issues of a regional character, whether it’s energy security or our joint efforts to combat transnational crime. And during his visit there, he’ll place special emphasis on the energy security throughout the Caribbean, bringing with him some new ideas on how the United States can contribute to advancing the -- or improving the energy picture across the Caribbean.
And then finally, on Friday, the Vice President will travel to Guatemala where he will meet with President Pérez Molina, and he will also meet with President Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador and the senior representative of the Honduran government, Coordinator General Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, to address the rise and flow of unaccompanied children to the United States, to discuss our security and economic support for the countries of Central America, and more generally, to increase our cooperation in the region.
And on the issue of unaccompanied children, let me just say a few words. The surge of unaccompanied Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border is an issue of great concern to us. The children making this long journey are some of the most vulnerable individuals, and many become victims of violent crime and sexual abuse. We’re seeing growing numbers of children under 12 and girls in the latest surge. Our top priority is to manage this urgent humanitarian situation.
The entire U.S. administration is engaged in addressing the situation and making sure these children are housed, fed and receive necessary medical treatment. But at the same time, we also realize that crucial importance of stemming the tide of migration. And here we see two primary factors -- first, the sustained violence in Central America, and the lack of economic opportunities there, second.
There are also then some reports about the misperception of U.S. immigration policy. As Secretary Johnson made clear yesterday, these migrant children are not eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, what’s called the DACA process, or pending immigration legislation. We ask families and communities to think twice before sending their children on this very dangerous journey. This is an important factor in thinking about how to address this problem.
The Vice President will be making this trip to Guatemala to discuss both the violence and economic opportunity side, and the misperceptions of the U.S. immigration policy. We’re looking for ways to enhance our existing work with those countries to address some of the root causes (inaudible.) And while we provide humanitarian relief to these children in the short term, unaccompanied immigrant minors are still going through removal proceedings just like anyone that crosses the border without proper documentation. Each case is evaluated individually and handled on a case-by-case basis.
So while he’s there in Guatemala, he will emphasize that illegal immigration is not safe; that putting your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization is not safe. And he will make clear that the recently arriving children are not eligible for DACA or earned citizenship provisions in current immigration reform legislation. The bottom line is that it’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when, at the end of the day, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
So with that, let me open it up for questions. And I will ask my colleagues to jump in to help provide comprehensive answers. Thank you.
Q Just wondering if you guys know the percentage of people who are coming across the border or unaccompanied children versus families with adults.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question. Could you repeat that question?
Q The question is, the administration is talking about unaccompanied minors, unaccompanied children crossing the border, but various reports suggest that the flow of unaccompanied minors are mostly older teenagers, and they’re only one-third of the new flow coming across the border. Do you know what percentage of people coming across the border these days are adults rather than unaccompanied minors? These are the people coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don’t have the precise numbers in front of me on that, and you’ll have to go to the Department of Homeland Security and others to get an answer to that. So I’d refer you to them unless one of my other colleagues has something they’d like to add at this point.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the Department of Homeland Security is the best place to have those precise statistics. Thanks.
Q If you could just go over again the name of the speaker and the rules for attribution on this. I’m dialing in on this a little bit late.
And my question was, will Cuba come up in this visit with several countries near Cuba, including the Dominican Republic? And is the administration considering changing U.S. policy or opening up some trade with Cuba? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just on that first issue, this call is on background, sourced to senior administration officials. And in answer to the question on Cuba, let me turn it to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. Cuba comes up very much as part of our dialogue with countries throughout the Americas, so we anticipate that it will be a subject of discussion in all of our stops -- probably less so in Central America, where we’re going to be more focused on an ongoing crisis involving the movement of children through the region.
But in the case of Cuba I think it’s important to say from the outside that the United States has made clear that we’re interested in having a more constructive relationship with the Cuban government. We remained very concerned about the lack of respect to democracy and human rights that Cuba has demonstrated this week through the arrest of a large number of dissidents and other figures. But at the same time, it’s been very clear that what is going to promote positive change in Cuba is empowering the Cuban people to have access to more resources and information. U.S. policy from the beginning of the President -- of Obama’s administration has been focused on doing exactly that.
In the case of our work in the region, certainly there is a desire to have Cuba more fully included in the Inter-American system. We share that desire. We want Cuba to be able to be part of the Inter-American system as a democratic country. And we are working with countries that do have a core commitment to democracy to ensure that they are also doing what they can to promote reform and increase respect for human rights in Cuba.
Q So I was trying to clarify -- can you tell us again the name of the Honduran official who the Vice President is going to be meeting with? And also, what is he bringing to these countries as part of any sort of plan to deal with the unaccompanied minor issue? Is the U.S. offering money, grants, assistance, law enforcement assistance -- any sort of carrot?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the issue of what he’s bringing, we’ll have more information to provide over the course of the next few days. So stay tuned on that front.
This is fundamentally meant in a cooperative spirit, where the United States wants to do its part to address some of the root causes of both the violence and the lack of economic opportunity. And that would build on the Central American Regional Security Initiative and the various economic initiatives that we have been pursuing.
Q So there will a source of aid, but just -- you’re not ready to announce it yet at this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you can anticipate that the Vice President will talk about the ways that the United States can enhance its support to these countries. But I don’t want to get into more details now. We will provide more details as the week goes on. So that’s number one.
Q I just wanted to ask you -- I know this call is about this visit, but while he’s on the visit, since he’ll be in the public eye, will he be making any remarks about the situation in Iraq? And does he have any new comments -- now about the situation in Iraq and any steps the U.S. is prepared to take?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Nothing for me to share on this call, but I think you can anticipate as the week unfolds that he’ll be speaking to this issue -- to the Iraq issue.
In terms of the name of the Honduran official, it is their Coordinator General, Jorge Ramón Hernández. The President of Honduras will actually be in Brazil for the World Cup matches. In fact, I think as we speak right now Honduras is playing one of its matches and will have another one later in the week.
Let me turn it to my colleague.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So just a little further on Central America -- so the President was in Costa Rica last year, in May of 2013, to meet with the leaders of Central America. And there, a great deal of the focus was on ways for -- to take on a competitiveness in Central America. And as my colleague said at the top of the call, there’s a variety of factors involved here. A major one is the very low economic growth the unfortunately has been a factor in the region.
So certainly we’re looking at what we can do to cooperate as partners with this particular issue, but also what we can do to address the long-term development of Central America. And that’s a subject of great interest not only on the part of the administration, but also on the part of the U.S. Congress and of other governments in the region with which we’ve worked to address matters like infrastructure, energy costs in Central America and so forth. So there is both the immediate issue and then the long-term process that we want to start moving towards.
And in addition to the security and economic side, it is important to underscore, as I did in my opening comments, that another element to this is addressing this perception about U.S. immigration policy, which the Vice President will also do.
Q How is the Vice President going to address the unaccompanied minor issue when he’s in Guatemala? Is he going to be making any public appearances or statements? Or will there just be press conferences? How is he going to tell parents in Latin America not to send their kids?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the Vice President will obviously have intensive consultations with the leaders to discuss the crisis and to engage on ways forward to dealing with it. And while he’s there, we anticipate he will have the opportunity to speak publicly to the issue, but I don’t want to get in front of him with his statements.
I would just say that some of the observations and comments I made in my opening remarks will be consistent with the kind of messages you’ll hear from him while he is there; that in addition to issues related to security and economics and misperceptions about U.S. immigration policy, there’s simply the fundamental issue that illegal immigration is not safe. Putting your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization is not safe, and it is not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But at the same time, the United States wants to work very closely with the governments of the region to try to make life better for these families and children in all of the countries of Central America.
Q I had a couple of questions. One is -- so it sounds like -- I believe there are three countries that are considered primarily responsible for the current surge: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Is there something planned with regard to El Salvador? Is there a reason he’s not visiting if, in fact, he’s not visiting on this trip? And also, can you say if any of these actions are in any in response to some requests from Congress, including a letter that was sent out last week to the President asking that he and other high-level administration officials send a clearer message that these children that are coming across the border are not eligible for any exceptional relief? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said in my opening remarks, the President of El Salvador, President Sanchez Cerén, will actually be in Guatemala for these meetings, along with the senior representative of the Honduran government, the Coordinator General, who is very close with the Honduran President and will come in his stead, because the President of Honduras will be in Brazil. So you will have senior representatives, leaders from all three countries be able to sit around the table with the Vice President to deal with these issues.
And then with respect to members of Congress, the Vice President, as a former member, he takes what they have to say very seriously. And we’ve had intensive consultations with Congress over the last several days, and consider dealing with this challenge a partnership with Congress. So we certainly consider their role important in all of this. The Vice President had the chance to speak directly to a number of both senators and representatives here at the White House. And I anticipate that as he heads down to Guatemala, and then after he returns, he will continue intensive engagement with folks on the Hill.
I don’t know if my colleague wants to add anything.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I just wanted to say this is only the latest of the highest level of engagement with the leaders of those countries on this topic. We’ve had very high-level interaction with the Presidents from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala for more than two months on this particular issue. Leaders in Central America have also, in their dealing with their own populations, have mentioned that they view this as a very serious problem, and have warned against this dangerous illegal migration as well in their own work.
We have also ensured that the Secretary of Homeland Security and -- has also engaged with the leaders of Mexico, which is working very closely with us to address this issue. So this is only the latest, and it’s a clear sign of the importance that we place on this and our determination to find a solution that will prevent this dangerous travel.
4:55 P.M. EDT