While Deportations Continue, US Overhauls Central American Refugee Program

Lead Photo: Kate Orlinsky for The New York Times
Kate Orlinsky for The New York Times
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Over the last few years, the United States’ southern border bore witness to the plight of Central American refugees. Fleeing gang violence, hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans made the dangerous trek into the US. In 2014, the stream of unaccompanied minors trying to cross the border totaled 151,705 – a 149 percent jump from the year before. And the last three months of 2015 – which saw 17,370 Central American minors attempting to cross the border – signaled a potential repeat of the 2014 surge. It’s especially noteworthy in an election year that – particularly because of Donald Trump’s proposed wall to separate the US and Mexico – has heavily focused on immigration.

Related: Latino USA Takes an In-Depth Look at the US’s Role in the Central American Refugee Crisis

Last week, in a briefing, the US government announced it would address this issue head-on by expanding its Central American refugee program. By the end of 2014, President Barack Obama called the increase a humanitarian crisis. That same year, his administration created the Central American Minors (CAM) program, with the intent of providing a safer way for children to enter the United States. “Our goal there was to protect children who had legitimate humanitarian claims, while discouraging people from placing their children in the hands of smugglers who were taking children on an extraordinarily dangerous journey across Mexico into the United States,” said Amy Pope, Deputy Homeland Security Advisor at the National Security Council.

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Initially, the program – which has received more than 9,500 applications – only allowed parents living in the United States to request refugee status for their children. But the new expansions has three new additions. Those who are 21 and older and have a sibling who is eligible for the program, for example, can now apply. Also, the biological parent of a child in either Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador may also qualify if their child already has one parent living in the U.S. And finally, caregivers “of a qualified child who are related to the U.S-based, lawfully present parent” may also apply for the program.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security on Central American Refugee Processing, said this change came because of the increase in applications. “We, to date, have received approximately 9,500 applications under the Central American Minors program,” he said. “Most of those applications have actually come in the last nine months. We’re seeing a significant uptick in the number of applications in that program. To date, more than 600 youth have arrived in the United States under the Central American Minors program. And now we have approximately 2,880 who have been approved under the Central American Minors program. So we’re seeing tremendous growth in that program, and we expect that growth to continue over the next six months.”

With changes to the system also comes a new accord with the Costa Rican government meant to provide immediate relief to some families, according to Fox News Latino. With the protection transfer agreement in place, families in the most dire situations will move to Costa Rica for up to six months as their applications are processed.

The Guardian reports that in the last three years, there’s been five times as much violence in the Northern Triangle, which has led to an increase in Central Americans looking for asylum. While this expansion may show the US recognizes Central Americans as refugees, some believe it doesn’t do enough. Mary Speck of the International Crisis Group says these measures don’t do anything for Central Americans already in Mexico and the United States.

This year, there have been two large-scale deportation sweeps targeting the Central American women and children who arrived in the United States after 2014. In the 80s – a time when the United States feared the countries would fall under communist rule – the US intervened and provided military aid and training to the authoritarian governments. “At that time, Honduras wasn’t going through a war,” Maria Hinojosa said in an episode of Latino USA. “The United States, though, began to use it as a kind of home base for all the military activity that it was doing in Central America, and all of this set off a wave of refugees that fled from Guatemala and El Salvador to the United States.”

Today, Central Americans are still feeling the effects, and they have once again fled to the US in droves. Children and mother have chosen the dangerous path to the United States in large part because of gang violence – specifically the U.S.-born gang Mara Salvatrucha.

Check out the full briefing below: