The U.S. State Department says it will no longer accept new applications for a program that allowed minors fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to settle in the United States.
In a media note issued Wednesday, the department abruptly announced that no new applications to the Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program would be accepted after midnight EST November 9.
The Department of Homeland Security had announced in mid-August it was going to end the program.
"But then that communication was walked back, and no official announcement was released," said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a resettlement organization. Wednesday's note was "the official announcement of the program's closure."
The CAM program was started in 2014 under former President Barack Obama as a response to the arrival at the U.S.-Mexico border of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families from Central America seeking entry into the United States.
It allowed parents who were lawfully in the U.S. to bring in minor children from the violence-ridden Northern Triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Under the program, children under 21 who had parents lawfully living in the United States could apply for a refugee resettlement interview before making the journey to the United States.
Children who did not qualify for refugee status and had no other means of reuniting with their parents in the United States could also apply for entry under the program. They would be approved for parole for two years, allowing them to travel and stay in the U.S.
Nearly 3,000 children have come through the CAM program, and thousands of others were in the midst of applying.
The International Rescue Committee said Thursday that it was working "with urgency to file or refile parents' applications prior to tonight's deadline."
The IRC condemned the abrupt end to the program, writing, "The short window to finalize in-progress applications amounts to a cruel willingness to interfere with parents who seek safety for their young children."
The State Department said that while no new applications would be accepted after the midnight deadline, applicants who had filed beforehand would continue to be pre-screened.
"This suggests that applicants will continue to be interviewed by DHS for refugee status," said Bellor, of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "While parole [under CAM] is no longer an option for those denied refugee status, approved individuals will travel to the U.S. to be resettled by one of the nine resettlement organizations."
But for those who do not apply by the midnight deadline, "there is no orderly and safe way for kids to leave the Northern Triangle. Children fleeing the violence in the NT must now make the arduous, traumatic and dangerous journey to the U.S. over land," Bellor said.