By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - The thousands of children fleeing drug violence and poverty in Central America could qualify for asylum in the United States and should have the right to make that case, Democratic lawmakers said on Thursday.
The United States is grappling with a surge of children arriving illegally, opening military bases to house the detained youths and working with the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to keep them from leaving home.
Republicans contend that Obama administration policies have created an incentive for additional border crossings. They blame the influx of children on President Barack Obama's 2012 decision to give temporary relief from deportation to some young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents.
But the Democratic lawmakers said the children are fleeing drug-fueled violence and said the masses at the border should be treated as a humanitarian and refugee crisis.
"We're seeing unprecedented violence, unprecedented suffering, unprecedented abuse," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez. "This is much more than an immigration issue."
Proposals outlined by Menendez included providing lawyers for the children and families, having child welfare experts screen unaccompanied children, offering alternatives to detention and smart investment in Central America to stem the flow of people out.
More than 47,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, crossed into the United States between October and May, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The U.N. refugee agency estimated 58 percent of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States may have a viable claim to refugee protection under international law, Menendez said.
"Some of the children will qualify for protection under asylum, trafficking and other laws, while other children will not," Menendez told a news conference. "All of these families and children deserve to have these cases heard."
He suggested extra costs for implementing the proposals would be offset by containing the crisis. A U.S. Senate panel last week sought $2.28 billion to feed and shelter an estimated 130,000 minors expected to arrive in the next year.
Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, said the children amassing at the border would not be eligible for deportation reprieve under the policy that Obama put in place in 2012.
"So why are they coming?" he asked. "They are fleeing for their lives."
The senators urged the United States to adopt long-term solutions, including cracking down on smuggling and human traffickers and supporting good governance, effective messaging and policing in Central America.
Honduras is the murder capital of the world and Guatemala and El Salvador are in the top five, said U.S. Representative Luis Gutiérrez, a vocal advocate of broad immigration reform legislation.
He and Menendez said Central American countries must do a better job at stemming the tide of people leaving.
In a House speech earlier, Gutierrez said lawmakers in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a "very testy meeting" on Wednesday with diplomats from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will visit Guatemala on Friday to meet Central American leaders about the influx of unaccompanied minors. (Editing by Caren Bohan and Jonathan Oatis)