Expanded Central American 'Refugee' Program: Bring the Whole Family!

By Nayla Rush on August 28, 2016

In a previous report, we highlighted the Obama administration's relentless efforts to welcome children (and adults) from Central America into the United States under the refugee umbrella, despite the lack of solid grounds for granting refugee status, even by United Nations standards.

New measures were announced last month to further the administration's renewed commitment to "address Central American migration challenges" and admit more people from that region. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said "Today, we are expanding these resettlement opportunities to additional vulnerable individuals within the region [Central America]. This will increase the number of individuals to whom we are able to provide humanitarian protection while combating human smuggling operations." (Emphasis added).

In our opinion, this recent expansion of "refugee resettlement opportunities" is not about protecting children and vulnerable populations (who, to begin with, do not qualify as refugees) but about providing, and paying for, a legal path to Central Americans who want to come to the United States and join their family members. This disguised vehicle for family reunification has grown wider as additional categories of family members (adult children, parents, and even "caregivers") are now able to participate in the program and move into the United States.

The Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program was established in December 2014 to, supposedly, offer minors a safe and legal alternative to a risky illegal crossing of the border. The program allowed parents 18 years of age and above who were lawfully present in the United States (on Permanent Resident Status, Temporary Protected Status, Parolee, Deferred Action, Deferred Enforced Departure, or Withdrawal of Removal) to ask for their children to come and join them. Children had to be unmarried, under the age of 21, and residing in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras. They had to also meet the definition of refugee or be eligible for parole.

The program's numerous conditions (DNA tests, background checks, medical clearance, etc.) dissuaded some from applying. More importantly, the majority of the Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran immigrants present in the U.S. are here illegally, which makes them ineligible to participate. This explains why, since the CAM program started almost three years ago, the U.S. received only 9,500 applications.

The limited success of this program, however, did not discourage the Obama administration, which looked for alternative routes to bring in more people (and not just children) from Central America as "refugees."

Last winter, Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed a plan to develop new refugee processing mechanisms in addition to the existing CAM Refugee/Parole Program. Again, CAM was ostensibly designed to respond to the increasing number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States illegally. The new plan made public by Kerry is to benefit every person — adults included— from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who seeks asylum. Individuals are to be processed in the region with the collaboration of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and then flown directly to the United States. Negotiations were underway as to which country will host this processing site.

Last month, the U.S. announced it reached an agreement with Costa Rica for that purpose. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) applauded Costa Rica's decision to "enter into a protection transfer arrangement (PTA) with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM)".

This means that, in coordination with UNHCR and IOM, the U.S. government will pre-screen applicants from the region who will then be transferred to Costa Rica where they will undergo refugee processing before being resettled to the United States. For cases that do not require urgent transfers to Costa Rica, in-country referral programs will enable residents in this region to be considered for refugee resettlement in the United States.

The most recently announced measures go farther. The administration has expanded the CAM program to include additional categories of applicants. CAM initially allowed parents legally present in the U.S. to petition only for their children. The "qualifying child" had to be:

  • The child (e.g. genetic, step, or legally adopted) of the qualifying parent;
  • Unmarried;
  • Under the age of 21;
  • A national of El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras; and
  • Residing in his or her country of nationality.

The following additional categories of applicants, when accompanied by a "qualified child," will now be also considered under this program:

  • sons and daughters of a U.S.-based lawfully-present parent who are over 21 years old;
  • the in-country biological parent of the qualified children;
  • caregivers of qualified children who are also related to the U.S.-based lawfully present parents.

To recapitulate: The Central American Minors program is no longer just for minor children sponsored by their parents already in the U.S. Adult children, married children, biological parents, as well as "caregivers" (a vague term that leaves room for interpretations: part-time, full-time, multiple caregivers such as grandfather and grandmother, aunt and uncle etc.?) can now join. This opens a huge door for numerous family members (no matter how remotely related) to be brought here. The rest of the "family" will probably follow later.

Furthermore the U.S. government is expanding its welcoming arms to every individual – not just children or adults "accompanying" children – from these countries who claims persecution. It is setting up a specific refugee resettlement system to be able to process these individuals in the region (whether in their own country or in Costa Rica), then fly them directly here.

This "humanitarian call" comes with a high cost.

The total FY 2016 request for the Unaccompanied Alien Children program was $948 million in base funding, plus $19 million in contingency funds. According to a Congressional Research Service report, "Congress met the base funding request but appropriated no monies for contingency funding." This translates into a total cost of $948 million.

Moreover, the latest U.S. funding contribution of $577 million to UNHCR included $3 million in additional funds "to help UNHCR address the protection needs of refugees from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America."

But most Central Americans do not even meet the refugee status requirements by UNHCR's own appraisal. The Migration Policy Institute also concluded that "being forced to join a gang or experiencing violence do not generally qualify as a basis for refugee status or fall readily into one of the refugee definition categories." And even if some did have valid apprehensions and were to qualify for humanitarian protection, why bring them to the U.S. away from their families and cultural backgrounds? Unless their family members were already here, of course.

Setting up a specific "refugee resettlement" program for Central American individuals who generally do not qualify as refugees is beyond comprehension. Expanding the CAM program to include related adults and caregivers – when it was initially created to only get minors to their parents in the U.S. safely – underlines even more the real purpose of such measures: It's all about family reunification.

In other words, individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras who made it to the U.S. – illegally for the most part – can now have their extended family members flown to them with U.S. taxpayers' money. And those on the other side, who considered crossing here illegally, could be spared the trouble and given legal status. This seems to be this administration's idea of enforcing immigration laws.

One last note. The U.S. is already contributing $750 million in aid for Central America. Admitting some over there do need help, why is it the United States' responsibility and not that of their own governments? Let's rephrase that: why is the Obama administration making it its responsibility? And why is this government adamant about bringing more and more Central Americans to the U.S. to join their relatives when most of those already in the U.S. should not even be here to begin with?

What else should we expect from President Obama before he leaves office?