Kerry on Border Invasion: 'Not a Question of Assigning Blame'

By Susan Jones | July 2, 2014 | 6:39 AM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Central American leaders in Panama on July 1, 2014. (State Department photo)

( - Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking in Panama Tuesday, said the tens of thousands of children flooding into the United States are a challenge not only for this country, but also for the Central American countries from which they are departing.

"This is a very complicated issue, and it's not a question of assigning blame. The only people to blame are the criminals who exploit young children," Kerry said.

Kerry warned that the children "are at enormous risk for their lives" in making the journey, but he also said he understands why they are heading to the USA:

Central America faces numerous challenges, he noted -- "the economy, jobs, violence, of the social inequities. And we obviously understand people who want to be able to do better and to look for a better life.

"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."

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since October. According to the Associated Press, "Many of the migrants are under the impression that they will receive leniency from U.S. authorities."

That leniency comes from President Obama, who in 2012 waived deportation for many young people who came to this country as children. Although his policy change does not apply to the new arrivals, many may not know that. And the word apparently has spread through Central America that U.S. immigration rules are open to interpretation.

In March 2011, the Obama administration announced a new immigration policy called prosecutorial discretion, which made the removal of criminals a priority.

Immigration officers were told they "should not expend detention resources on aliens who are known to be suffering from serious physical or mental illness, or who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or nursing, or demonstrate that they are primary caretakers of children or an infirm person, or whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest."

Kerry on Tuesday said the U.S. needs to "work together" with Central American countries to "address the fundamental underlying causes of this particular challenge."