Refugee Program For Central American Children Too Limited To Have Major Impact

By Kate Sheehy
August 14, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz.--The U.S. government started a program last year that enables children in some Central American countries to be admitted to the U.S. as refugees. It’s a response to the drastic spike in the number of unaccompanied child migrants last year. A new report shows the program is not likely to significantly reduce unauthorized migration.

The Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program, or CAM, allows immigrant parents who are in the U.S. lawfully to initiate a refugee application for their children back home. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador interview children to see if they meet refugee criteria. 

Doris Meissner is one of the authors of the report from the Migration Policy Institute that looks at the first several months of the program. She said one of its limitations is that it’s tough for kids facing violence in Central America to qualify as a refugee.

“Even though those really dire conditions exist and really have been worsening in recent years from everything we know, that does not necessarily make you be eligible to be admitted as a refugee,” she said. 

She said applicants have to show they are being persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. This is the United Nations definition of a refugee.

More than a million immigrant parents may be eligible to apply, according to the report. Some of these numbers are parents that could qualify under President Obama’s expansion of Deferred Action. This program is currently being challenged by a multi-state lawsuit. 

So far only around 3,300 applications have been submitted. Salvadorans have been the group with the largest number of applicants. 

Meissner said it’s too soon to tell how several factors may impact the program’s success, and some data is not available at this time. For example, it’s unknown how many potentially eligible parents have children in dangerous circumstances in Central America. Also, she said with similar programs in other countries, people were hesitant to come forward to the U.S. government or concerned about threats in their community.

Moreover, Meissner said the Executive Branch can only do so much at this time to address unauthorized immigration.  

“What we need is Congress to enact immigration reform, so that it’s possible for people to come to the country legally and then either bring their family members with them or have their family members follow," Meissner said.

Children resettled in the U.S. as refugees are eligible for a green card after one year. 

If a child does not qualify as a refugee, they may apply for “humanitarian parole.” In this case, parents must demonstrate they can financially support the child or children. This designation gives minors a two-year work permit that can be renewed. Meissner said approval for this status is less stringent.