The Obama administration announced plans Tuesday to expand a refugee program for Central American children who are fleeing danger, part of a broader effort to stem the unregulated flow of unaccompanied minors across the southern U.S. border.
The State Department program, launched in December 2014 after a massive influx of children that year swamped border patrol stations, allows children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to seek protections in the United States by applying within their own country.
So far, however, the impact has been small. U.S. officials said 2,884 children have been granted refugee status from a pool of 9,500 applicants, and just 267 of them have entered the United States. That number is minuscule compared with the thousands of children and families from those nations who are apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol each month while trying to enter the country.
In June, for example, more than 11,000 children and family members crossed the border illegally, according to statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. officials and humanitarian workers have warned that the migrants are often abused or put in danger during the journey north under the guidance of human smugglers.
“The goal is for individuals who have legitimate humanitarian claims not to take the perilous journey and really accept our outstretched arms of relief,” DHS deputy secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on a conference call with reporters.
Under the expansion plans, three additional categories of people would be allowed to apply: older siblings of a qualified child, provided they have a parent already living lawfully in the United States; the biological parents of a qualified child; and caregivers of a qualified child, provided a parent is living lawfully in the United States.
In addition, Obama administration officials said, Mexico has agreed to increase the number of Central American refugees it will accept under its own program. And Costa Rica has agreed to provide safe harbor to as many as 200 Central American children considered in grave danger while their cases are being examined by the U.S. State Department.
Officials said the program would ramp up over the next few months, but they were vague about how many more people would receive protections.
“We are very confident the numbers are increasing, that thousands will be benefiting from these programs in the near future,” said Anne Richard, an assistant secretary at the State Department.
Humanitarian advocates credited the administration for taking additional steps, but they acknowledged that the scale of the Central American refugee crisis remains daunting.
“The most recent step they are taking is an acknowledgment that people in the region have very serious protection concerns,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids In Need of Defense. But she added: “How many more people will be reached through these new initiatives I don’t think they know.”
The Obama administration was slow to respond to the surge in migrants from Central America that peaked in 2014 when tens of thousands of women and children overwhelmed the border patrol stations.
The president and his top aides moved to stem the influx, pressuring Central American nations, along with Mexico, to tighten their borders and prevent the families from undertaking the trip. Congress allocated $750 million in aid to the region.
The efforts helped significantly decrease the number of refugees, but the numbers rose again last year. DHS launched a series of raids in January to deport dozens of Central American families who had lost their cases within the United States, an effort to send a stronger deterrence message.