Obama administration expands Central American refugee program

Mexico's President Peña Nieto and President Obama at the White House last week. (Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana/Flickr)

The White House has announced it will soon expand efforts to help Central American families and children legally immigrate to the United States, after previous efforts largely failed to provide protection to the vast number of refugees crossing the border.

White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, Amy Pope, said Tuesday that part of the expansion is to extend refugee processing for families from Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – in their countries of origin rather than in the U.S.

“The goal is for individuals who have legitimate humanitarian claims not to take the perilous journey and really accept our outstretched arms of relief,” said DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, according to the Washington Post.

The government is also modifying a nearly two-year-old program to allow some Central American children to reunite with parents already legally living in the United States. The program currently allows children under 21, with at least one parent legally living in the U.S., to be considered for refugee status. Under the new terms, a sibling, caregiver or another parent of a qualifying child can also apply.

Obama administration officials said Mexico has also agreed to increase the number of Central American refugees it will accept under its own asylum program, and Costa Rica has agreed to take as many as 200 of the most vulnerable Central American refugees, while their cases are examined by the U.S. State Department.

But some immigrants’ rights groups and critics question whether the expansion will be enough to meet the high demand for asylum and are concerned that the expansion does not appear to address those asylum-seekers already in the U.S. Another concern is that there are too many refugees fleeing from immediate threats, and they will quickly outnumber the limit on Costa Rica’s offer for temporary protection.

“What do you do in those situations where someone quite literally made a decision one day to the next based on threats or aggression or something that may have happened to them or their family members?” Maureen Meyer, senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the Guardian. “They’re not going to want to wait around to get an appointment.”

It is also still unclear how many more refugees will receive protections under the new program. But supporters of the expanded program are already applauding what they see as a progressive move after years of mismanaging the Central American crisis.

“It shows the administration now recognizes this is primarily a refugee flow, not an economic one,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York, in an interview with the New York Times.

The efforts are designed in part to combat the recent rush of families and unaccompanied children caught illegally crossing the border. The number of such immigrants has been steadily rising this year after significant decreases between the 2014 and 2015 budget years, with more than 51,100 people traveling as families and more than 43,000 unaccompanied children caught illegally crossing the Mexican border since last October.

Since the White House first launched the program to allow unaccompanied child refugees to legally enter the U.S., the Associated Press reported that 2,884 have had their cases approved, and more than 9,500 applications are pending.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com