By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - Some leading members of the U.S. Congress are calling on the Obama administration to consider launching an emergency refugee program for Central American children as one way to address a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis at the southern border with Mexico.
Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are showing up illegally, often without any parents or relatives, at the Texas border. Their numbers could reach 90,000 this year and grow to 150,000 next year - up from only about 6,000 in 2011, according to government estimates.
After making the dangerous journey with the help of human and drug traffickers who prey upon them, this rush of children and teenagers are straining U.S. resources, from temporary shelters to immigration courts.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, told Reuters on Thursday that establishing refugee application programs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where domestic abuse, gang violence and poverty are rampant, is the "key" to defusing the growing U.S. border crisis.
McCain and other members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - say that a refugee program could help discourage minors from making the perilous journey north alone. At the same time, it would give some of them a legal way to flee the three nations, which rank among the top five countries with the highest murder rates in the world.
Many of the children are trying to reunite with relatives already in the United States, some of them here illegally.
It also would dovetail with the urgent message President Barack Obama and his top aides are now telegraphing throughout Central America: that "unaccompanied minors" should not expect to be welcomed into the United States if they arrive illegally.
If Obama were to opt for a refugee program, he likely would use his own authority to create it, according to experts, rather than rely on legislation from Congress. Under such a plan, children could go to U.S. embassy offices in their home countries and apply for refugee status.
White House officials would not comment on the next steps it might take. Instead, they recounted measures recently announced to deal with the surge of illegally immigrating children.
Those include $40 million to improve Guatemalan border security and $25 million to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are vulnerable to organized crime pressures.
Many immigration experts do not believe those steps, even when coupled with a public relations campaign urging kids to stay at home, will stop the flow. Long-term U.S. foreign economic aid and anti-drug programs in these countries might be needed, they have said.
STEMMING THE TIDE?
The United States has a history of taking in refugees fleeing difficult situations, from Haitians and Cubans running from domestic upheavals and Vietnamese fleeing after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to Kosovars, Iraqis and Afghanis seeking refuge from wars more recently.
"I think it's something we need to discuss," said Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California. "You don't need legislation to do that." Lofgren is the senior Democrat on a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.
She added that she was "surprised" that a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, which has deep partisan divides, approached her this week wanting to talk to her about a refugee program for children from the three Central American countries.
Like Lofgren, Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a leading advocate of revamping U.S. immigration laws, said in an interview that he wants to look further into a refugee program before fully embracing it.
But, he added, "I think it would stem the tide" of illegal immigrant children while also giving them a quick, legal avenue to safer environments.
As the White House weighs its options, it likely is considering political blowback from conservative Republicans in Congress who already are blaming Obama for creating the crisis at the border by easing some immigration policies.
"I wouldn't do that," warned Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, when asked about a refugee assistance program. "The more they come, the more will come. There will be hundreds of thousands," he added.
And then there is a raft of technical issues related to launching an emergency refugee program.
"Some sort of in-country or regional processing (of refugee children) is one of the suggestions we have been making," said Kristen Aster, associate director of the Refugee Council USA.
She said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could get involved in the coordination, given that children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras might have to flee their native countries quickly and travel to a neighboring one once they apply for refugee status. The United States or other Central American countries could be their final destinations.
Other specialists including Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, worry that if Obama were to impose a tight overall cap on the number of refugees, it could leave many deserving children ineligible.
Doing so, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned in a report last November, "could ensure their demise."
Meanwhile, Congress is clamoring for some sort of action.
"The journey from Guatemala to the United States has got to be hell on Earth for some of these kids," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview.
Saying he has an open mind to a refugee program, Graham added, "We'd be able to make a more intelligent decision about what's legitimate and you wouldn't have the problem of people showing up, dropped off at the door (border). That makes sense to me."
(Editing by Karey Van Hall, Bernard Orr)