WASHINGTON ― The Obama administration announced plans Tuesday to expand programs that allow Central Americans to come to the U.S. as refugees, acknowledging that the current system hasn’t stopped people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras from entering the country without authorization.
The policy changes, which officials said will go into effect in the next few months, will not apply to all Central Americans seeking entry into the U.S. They will, however, expand eligibility for one key program, the Central American Minors program, and provide more assistance for vulnerable people who need to immediately escape their countries as they await refugee processing.
The Obama administration ramped up efforts to admit Central Americans as refugees after the number of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border spiked in 2014. Many were seeking asylum from violence and gang activity in their home countries. In response, the administration increased aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras ― but also made the more controversial decision to pursue deportations and open new family immigrant detention centers.
After apprehensions of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America dropped in the 2015 fiscal year, they’re are up again this year ― a fact that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has used as a talking point. Apprehensions are still under fiscal year 2014 levels, however.
“What we have seen is that our current efforts to date have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims and there are insufficient pathways for those people to present their claims for adjudication,” Amy Pope, deputy homeland security advisor, said on a call with reporters.
What we have seen is that our current efforts to date have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims. Amy Pope, deputy homeland security advisor
The new plans “will not solve this challenge, but are steps in the right direction,” Anne Richards, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration, said on the same call.
Those steps include broadening eligibility for the Central American Minors program, which was established in November 2014 to deter unauthorized arrivals into the U.S. Initially, the program allowed U.S. citizens and those lawfully present in the country to apply for their unmarried, children under age 21 to join them from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.
The program attracted criticism for number of reasons, including both its restrictive criteria and its slow start. A year after it was announced, no one had come to the U.S. under the program, and some families said they were forced to pay smugglers to bring in their children because the wait time was too long. About 270 people have now been resettled into the U.S. under the Central American Minors program, officials said.
But as people continue to cross into the U.S. in search of asylum, the administration is planning to expand the program to allow siblings, biological parents and caregivers to enter the U.S. as well ― as long as they are accompanying minors approved under the existing guidelines, officials announced.
There are still restrictive eligibility requirements: Most undocumented parents are ineligible to apply to have their children join them in the U.S., and adults can only enter under the program if they’re traveling with approved minors. For example, if a 21-year-old wanted to join her lawfully present parent in the U.S., she could only enter the country with a younger sibling.
The Central American Minors program “is gaining and has gained considerable traction recently,” Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters. He said the government has received about 9,500 applications so far. The State Department screened more than 6,800 applicants and the Department of Homeland Security completed about 2,900 final interviews with applicants, approving about 2,880 people for resettlement, he said.
Other efforts to supplement the Central American Minors program will also be expanded, officials said. The U.S. government will continue screening people in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for eligibility to come to the U.S. as refugees, a plan announced earlier this year.
“These programs most often take time to build traction [and] credibility in the countries at issue, and, just as in the Central American Minors program, we expect this type of growth to occur over time,” Mayorkas said.
The government of Costa Rica has also agreed to temporarily host up to 200 people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who passed initial screening in their countries of origin but are undergoing additional processing to come to the U.S. as refugees, officials said Tuesday. This will at least partially address a major problem with the current system: People are at considerable risk in their home countries, but they must still await approval before they can leave.
“The basic contradiction at the heart of the [Central American Minors] program has been the requirement that children who are under threat for their lives are required to remain in the country for the lengthy period of time that it takes to process resettlement claims,” Bill Frelick, refugee rights program director at Human Rights Watch, said in an interview after the announcement.
He said the policy changes were an improvement, although eligibility is still too narrow. Other refugee advocates also said the government should go further.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who introduced a bill this month aimed at improving conditions in Central America, said in a statement that the announcements were “important preliminary steps to treating those escaping violence in Central America as the refugees they are.”
The bill, also introduced in the Senate by Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), would require the Department of Homeland Security to increase resources to the Central American Minors program and make decisions on applications within 180 days, so long as security screening is completed.
Republicans quickly pounced on the administration’s policy announcement by tying it to unauthorized immigration and, in Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) case, terrorist threats. His office put out a statement saying the U.S. “does not have the capacity to properly vet every incoming refugee, and terrorist organizations can take advantage of the major shortfalls in the refugee process.”
He and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) both condemned the Central American Minors program in statements because certain undocumented immigrants with temporary protected status or deferred action protections are eligible to bring their children.
Goodlatte said the expansion of the program was “simply a continuation of the government-sanctioned border surge.”
This story has been updated with additional reactions from members of Congress and refugee advocates.