WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government plans in the next 90 days on "going after" smuggling and trafficking organizations that Washington accuses of manipulating migrants into heading for the U.S.-Mexico border, a senior Biden administration official said on Thursday.
The official, who briefed reporters on meetings by U.S. envoys in Mexico City earlier this week, forecast a continuing surge of migrants on the way in "spring caravans."
The U.S. and Mexican officials discussed ways to improve U.S.-Mexico border enforcement as well as making sure Central American governments have the resources to help secure Mexico's southern border, the official said on condition of anonymity.
"We see a convergence of interests," the official said.
The official added a particular emphasis for the U.S. government in the next three months was "going after trafficking organizations and smuggling organizations. … You have organizations that are miscommunicating the immigration policies of the United States and for a profit.”
President Joe Biden said he would not apologize for rolling back the hardline immigration policies of his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, and brushed off criticism that migrants were making the journey because they perceived him to be a "nice guy."
Speaking at his first White House news conference, Biden defended his handling of rising migration. While he mostly struck an empathetic tone, he said the United States was expelling the vast majority of migrants under a COVID-19 public health order but that some families had been allowed in because Mexico would not accept their return.
He said the United States was in talks with Mexico for that country to take back more migrant families, many of whom are fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Asked to expand on Biden's comment, the administration official did not cite any specific progress made on Mexico accepting more migrant families, but stressed that the two countries were working together on the issue.
El Salvador's Congress, meanwhile, approved a special law against human trafficking later on Thursday, establishing harsher prison sentences for smugglers known as 'coyotes' of between eight and 12 years, compared with six to ten years previously.
The law also marks the first time the Central American country would punish the organizers of migrant caravans bound for the United States, making it a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to eight years.
U.S. administration officials said a visit to Guatemala by White House senior Latin America adviser Juan Gonzalez and Northern Triangle envoy Ricardo Zuniga, which was called off this week due to a volcanic eruption, would be rescheduled and they would soon hold a virtual meeting with Guatemalan leaders.
Biden on Wednesday named Vice President Kamala Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to try to stem the flow of migration to the United States.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Leslie Adler, Peter Cooney and Ana Nicolaci da Costa)