A key component of the Obama administration’s response to a crisis of Central Americans fleeing violence before illegally crossing the U.S. southern border is not operational more than four months after it was announced.
On Jan. 13, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced a program to allow Central American children and families to apply for refugee status before making the dangerous journey to the United States.
At that time, administration officials told the New York Times that as many as 9,000 people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras might be able to come to the U.S. under the program each year, while some would go to other countries in the region.
According to groups that assist refugees, no one has arrived in the U.S. as a refugee through the program.
“This is not an emergency response program, as it was set up to be,” said Stacie Blake, the director of government and community relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “This is very methodical and careful,” Blake told The Daily Signal. “I think careful and methodical is fine, but I am concerned about women and children in such desperate situations that they can’t stay where they are for fear of being killed, and we don’t have a solution to get them protection quickly right now.”
A State Department official confirmed the program is not up and running yet. “We hope to be in the position to begin accepting and processing referrals in the coming months,” the official told The Daily Signal.
While the program was set up to provide safety to vulnerable Central Americans, the Obama administration also hoped that in-country processing would help stem the flow of illegal immigration from those countries, which is on the rise again after slowing following the “crisis” of 2014.
“It’s not a real deterrent if no one can come through that door,” Blake said.
The State Department plan is intended to expand the U.S. Refugees Admissions Program to help vulnerable families and individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and offer them a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey migrants are taking to the U.S. southwest border.
Under the expanded program, the U.S. would work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to create processing centers in neighboring countries to Central America, where the migrants would be temporarily shielded from danger until their application was considered.
This service was meant to be more inclusive than a previous program, established by the Obama administration in Dec. 2014, that allowed only Central American children with parents already living legally in the U.S. to apply in their home countries for refugee status. In addition, that program allows children who do not qualify for refugee status, but are at risk of harm in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras, to be considered for parole, which would also allow them to come to the U.S. and join their parents.
The State Department official confirmed that more than 300 individuals have arrived in the U.S. through the program for children, which is called the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program (CAM).
The new expanded program, meanwhile, would screen applicants based on their eligibility for refugee status under U.S. law, regardless of whether they are children or have family in America.
Once operational, this program will be based upon referrals from organizations that work with vulnerable populations in the three countries, and will not be a direct application program, according to the State Department official.
Experts who’ve been following the issue told The Daily Signal that the newly expanded refugee program has been slowed because the State Department and U.N. have been unable to find a neighboring country willing to process applicants.
“My understanding is that it’s politically difficult to get the agreement of a third country,” said Joanne Kelsey, the assistant director for advocacy at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is one of nine federally-contracted agencies that help settle refugees in the U.S.
Kevin Appleby, director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies, said that Belize — a nearby Central American nation — was under consideration, but that the country was requesting a significant amount of aid in exchange.
The State Department official would only say that “negotiations regarding specific aspects of this program are ongoing,” and that “we are working with a number of partners in the region, including nongovernmental entities, about different aspects of this program.”
In-country processing has been part of the U.S. refugee admissions system since 1979.
Under international conventions, a refugee is someone outside his country escaping persecution, but the U.S. has sometimes created special in-country processing programs for select countries during times of political oppression, humanitarian crisis, and post-war.
Previous in-country processing programs include ones set up in Vietnam, Haiti, and Cuba. Cuba’s program is still operational.
Some observers say these programs overemphasize outflows and deterrence rather than addressing the conditions in those countries that make people vulnerable to begin with.
As part of a deterrence component of its strategy, the Obama administration announced this month that it will in the coming weeks increase the pace of deportations of Central American families who have already been told by an immigration judge that they don’t qualify for asylum.
That move is intended to send a signal to Central Americans that they should not attempt to cross the southwest border illegally this summer, which is normally the seasonal time when illegal immigration increases.
“I don’t think we want to deter people from seeking protection for persecution and violence,” Blake said. “That’s really not who we are. If we are talking about people who are running for their lives from some of the murder capitals of the world, I don’t think anything is going to deter them.”
Others say in-country processing has limited impact, and needs to be part of a broader strategy to address situations of mass migration.
Writing about the CAM program in a Aug. 2015 report, Faye Hipsman and Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute predicted modest results.
“The program’s limited numbers and narrow eligibility criteria are not likely to constitute a realistic alternative at a scale that can significantly reduce these flows to the United States,” Hipsman and Meissner noted of the program’s potential impact on illegal immigration from Central America to the U.S.
“As such, the CAM program should be seen as but one component of the multifaceted response that is needed to address and manage the flows of unaccompanied minors from Central America.”
Despite its limitations, immigration experts say a functioning in-country processing system in Central America would at least bring some calm to a chaotic situation.
“There is definitely urgency to stand this program up,” Hipsman of the Migration Policy Institute told The Daily Signal. “Standing it up in a way that’s effective will reduce apprehensions at the border and save people from really dangerous journeys. It’s definitely urgent to get the program up and running. Until the option exists for people to get protection under this program, people will be more likely to go through Mexico to get to the U.S. border and apply for asylum here.”
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