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US Expands Migration Eligibility for Some Central American Minors

FILE - In this March 27, 2019, photo, Central American migrants wait for food in a pen erected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to process a surge of migrant families and unaccompanied minors in El Paso, Texas.

The State Department and Department of Homeland Security announced this week that they are expanding eligibility for legal migration to the U.S. for some minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Central American Minors (CAM) program allows immigrant parents or U.S.-based guardians with legal status in the country to petition for their children's resettlement in the U.S. The Biden administration restarted the program in March after a four-year halt.

CAM’s first phase was centered on working through thousands of applications and cases that had been suspended when the Trump administration ended the program in 2017. The second phase will allow new petitions to be filed.

How does the program work?

Through sponsorship by a parent or guardian already residing legally in the U.S., some minors can be authorized to travel to the country. The program, which continues America’s decades-old commitment to family reunification as an immigration priority, entails a multistep process.

“The parent files an application through the refugee resettlement process,” said Miriam Abaya, senior director for immigration and children’s rights at First Focus on Children, an advocacy group focused on prioritizing needs of children and families in federal policy and budget decisions. “There's [a] verification process to verify the child's relationship [with the petitioner]. Then they interview the child to determine whether or not that child is either eligible for refugee status or for parole [into the U.S.].”

Abaya added that eligible minors must undergo a background check before being brought to the United States.

To qualify for CAM, the applicant must be unmarried, under 21 and a national of El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras. Because CAM is a humanitarian program, there is no fee to apply.

FILE - An activist holds up a pro-refugee image during a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 15, 2019.
FILE - An activist holds up a pro-refugee image during a demonstration outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Oct. 15, 2019.

What is the difference between refugee status and being paroled in the U.S.?

Being paroled is a temporary status that allows a migrant to enter the county under humanitarian relief but without a path to permanent residency, also known as a green card. By contrast, admittance as a refugee is permanent.

“If you get refugee status, once you arrive in the U.S., you have lawful status so you can adjust to get a green card,” Abaya said, noting that eligibility for refugee status is “very specific” and that many CAM applicants may not qualify.

“If you get paroled [into the country], then you don't necessarily have [permanent] status in the U.S., but you're allowed to be in the country for a temporary period of time,” she said.

According to Abaya, the parole process serves a vital function for children who do not meet the definition of a refugee but are nevertheless in danger in their home countries, allowing them to be united with parents or guardians in the U.S.

What impact has the program had since its inception in 2014?

Immigration experts say that from the start, the program was slow to process applicants. The first minors began arriving in the U.S. in November 2015, almost a year after CAM’s creation under the former Obama administration.

According to a report by the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, by the end of 2016, there was a backlog of more than 10,500 applications awaiting processing. The U.S. ultimately resettled 3,000 minors before halting the program in 2017 and rescinding the acceptance of 2,700 children who had yet to be brought to the U.S.

FILE - Children stand in line with some of the thousands of young immigrants at Chicago's Navy Pier on Aug. 15, 2012.
FILE - Children stand in line with some of the thousands of young immigrants at Chicago's Navy Pier on Aug. 15, 2012.

During the Obama administration, parents who had received humanitarian relief were allowed to petition for their children. Forms of relief included temporary protected status, deferred action, deferred enforced departure, parole, withholding of removal and permanent resident status.

Under the Biden administration’s relaunching of the program, a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. who has a pending asylum case or pending U visa case can also file a petition. U visas are for victims of certain crimes who have assisted U.S. law enforcement investigations.

What has been the reaction to the relaunching of the program?

Critics of the program note that it is unlikely to significantly reduce the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization.

“I’m worried that this effort is going to be somehow passed off as an effort to address the number of migrants at the southern border when it does nothing to stem the flow or address the crisis created by this administration,” Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “There’s no evidence to suggest that arrivals at the southern border or illegal crossings were reduced when the Obama administration tried this years ago, so there’s no reason to think it will have that effect now.”

Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, have welcomed the resumption of the CAM program but note that eligibility does not cover the full range of family members who may wish to apply to bring a minor to the U.S.

“It's not just parents and legal guardians that care for children. There are aunts, there’s a grandparent who is in the United States, and those family members don't have any way to apply,” Abaya said.

Even so, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, noted that thousands of youths who would have been ineligible in 2014 may now qualify under the Biden administration’s limited expansion of the program.

“The Biden administration’s decision to broaden admissions criteria is potentially transformative in extending a legal pathway to far more people in need,” Vignarajah said in a statement.