SAN DIEGO -- As President Joe Biden's administration prepares for the end of asylum restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is offering some new legal options for people — especially families — to come to the United States.
The administration said it will admit at least 100,000 Latin Americans seeking to reunite with family members in the United States, but it has released almost no details. The plan was announced as restrictions tied to a public health law, known as Title 42, were set to expire Thursday.
A look at the new legal pathway for Latin Americans to join their relatives in the United States:
HOW WOULD PEOPLE APPLY?
During a recent visit to the border city of Brownsville, Texas, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said people would apply for permission to join their families in the United States at regional processing centers. The government plans to open 100 such hubs across the Western Hemisphere, with the first ones starting in Guatemala and Colombia.
The centers will handle requests for family reunification parole, Mayorkas said, along with applications for the U.S. refugee program and humanitarian parole for those deemed to be particularly vulnerable, which is decided on a case-by-case basis.
WHO WILL BE ELIGIBLE?
The new family reunification parole program is for immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents and who have gotten approval for their petitions to bring over immediate family members.
The U.S. government said eligible people will receive an invitation to participate. The government will provide advance travel authorization for individuals who are approved and people will be eligible to apply for authorization to work in the United States while they wait for their immigrant visas.
The administration said more information will be released in mid-June.
It’s unclear if there will be age restrictions. Generally immigrants and refugees in the U.S. have been allowed to petition only for immediate family members, such as a spouse or child. To be considered a child, the person must be unmarried and under 21 years of age. All other family members such as siblings, cousins and adult children are not eligible for family reunion.
Immigration attorneys say some immigrants have been waiting for years to be reunited with their spouses and children.
It's unclear why the administration has said it intends to welcome as many as 100,000 people from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador under the family reunification parole processes.
Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Center said U.S. State Department data shows at least 284,000 Latin Americans have filed family sponsorship petitions. That includes 78,000 Salvadorans, and up to 57,000 Hondurans, 58,000 Guatemalans, and 56,000 Colombians.
But it's unclear if those waiting have since found other options, she said.
Immigration attorney Sarah Gavigan, who works at the Central American Resource Center or Carecen in San Francisco, also wondered if the 100,000 reflects the actual number of backlogged family petitions from those countries.
Gavigan applauded the creation of a new family reunification program, while criticizing other Biden administration rules that she says penalize people fleeing harm who go to the border to apply for asylum.
WILL IT MIRROR OTHER HUMANITARIAN PROGRAMS OFFERED RECENTLY?
Immigration attorneys believe the new family reunification parole program is the latest effort of a model that started when the United States brought in 100,000 Ukrainians following Russia's 2022 invasion of the country.
The program required Ukrainians to apply online, have a financial backer and enter through an airport, while officials turned back Ukrainians who arrived on foot at the U.S. border.
After that effort was successful, the administration in January extended humanitarian parole to other people fleeing their homelands and who were showing up at the U.S. border in record numbers. In January, the government announced it would bring in up to 30,000 people each month from four nations: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti.
Mayorkas said after those legal options were put into place, the government saw a 95% drop in the number of encounters U.S. border officials had with migrants of those four nationalities.
Most of the parole programs allow in people for a limited time, but attorneys say people permitted to come to the U.S. for family reunification can apply for permanent residency.
ARE PLANS UNDERWAY TO HELP MORE FAMILIES REUNITE?
Yes. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced it is restarting and broadening family reunification parole programs for Haitians and Cubans to allow vetted individuals with already approved family-based petitions to be allowed into the United States, on a case-by-case basis. The government said the program would be for the immediate family members of Haitian and Cuban immigrants in the United States. The government will invite people to participate.
It’s unclear if the government plans to eliminate the need for a consular interview. Allen Orr Jr., who has worked extensively with Haitians applying for parole, said that would be key since most Haitians cannot get to interviews at the U.S. embassy due to the country's instability and widespread violence.
Orr called the efforts an important step in the right direction. But he said comprehensive immigration reform from Congress is ultimately needed to solve the problem.
“It’s wonderful, but it’s very much a bucket emptying the ocean,” he said. “It’s not a sweeping thing that is going to modify the amount of people showing up at the border. It gives the administration another lever, but it isn’t going to overall change the immigration system.”
WHAT DO CRITICS SAY?
Immigration attorney Curtis Morrison said only time will tell if the administration makes good on its promise.
His firm represents 3,000 people who have have applied for similar family reunification parole programs in the Middle East and Asia, and have ended up waiting years. The process was supposed to take six to nine months, he said.
Part of the problem, he said, is a lack of government staff able to process the applications.
“I have a hard time taking the Biden administration seriously when they talk about expanding family reunification programs,” he said.
Under the current wait time, a father who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder and is trying to bring over his wife and baby from a country like Pakistan might not be reunited with them until the child is entering kindergarten, he said.