— -- In an effort to stem the flow of undocumented children and families across the southwest border of the U.S. and provide a solution to humanitarian challenges like smuggling and trafficking, today the Department of Homeland Security announced new measures to expand the United States’ Central American refugee processing program.
Since January of this year, about 26,000 unaccompanied alien children and almost 30,000 family units have tried to cross the southwest border, according to Customs and Border Protection. The majority of them were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz called the humanitarian crisis in Central America “heartbreaking,” noting that refugee families in those countries often face violence as they seek to escape the region, which is why “it was important for us to take action.”
As part of this new initiative, the Central American Minors program will expand to include additional relationships to a child who qualifies for the refugee program, including siblings over the age of 21, the in-country biological parent if one parent is lawfully present in the U.S., and “caregivers” of the child. The United States has received over 9,200 applicants for this program so far and approved about 2,300.
“Through the Central American Minors program, the U.S. government offers an alternative, safe, and legal path to the United States for children seeking protection from harm or persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in official statement.
The announcement, which comes in the midst of the Democratic National Convention, is expected to generate sharp criticism from the Republican nominee who has advocated for closed borders.
DHS Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on a call with reporters that one of the goals of the expanded Central American Minors programs is family unity.
In an effort to provide immediate protection for those in danger, Costa Rica has agreed to a protection transfer arrangement (PTA), in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), allowing families facing threats to leave their home country while their application is processed.
Costa Rica plans to be capable of hosting around 200 individuals for a period of six months at a time.
For those who do not qualify for immediate transfer to Costa Rica, a new in-country referral program will allow applications for refugee protection, and claims will be evaluated through a vetting process by DHS officers in those home countries.
DHS also indicated that Mexico will play a greater role by increasing its capacity to screen asylum seekers from Central America. This agreement was a product of the meeting between President Obama and Mexican President Enrique Nieto last week.