U.S. Agrees To Take In More Central American Refugees, But It May Come At A Cost

CREDIT: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Secretary of State John Kerry gestures while giving a foreign policy speech at National Defense University in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The Obama administration is planning to expand a program to let would-be migrants from Central America apply for refugee status before they attempt to come to the U.S., Secretary of State John Kerry said. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The United States plans to increase the number of refugees admitted from Central America fleeing El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — the three “Northern Triangle” countries that are currently embroiled in increasing gang violence and extreme poverty — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced on Wednesday.

The expanded U.S. Refugee Admissions Program would offer “vulnerable” families and individuals “a safe and legal alternative to the dangerous journey that many are tempted to begin, making them at that instant easy prey for human smugglers who have no interest but their own profits,” Kerry said during a speech at the National Defense University on Wednesday.

The refugee program would grant adults claiming to be fleeing persecution or death to apply through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which would conduct initial screenings in processing centers in nearby countries to make eligibility determinations.

As many as 9,000 people from the three countries may be eligible under the proposed refugee program, according to an administration official who spoke with the New York Times. The United States was already planning to admit 85,000 refugees this fiscal year, but only about 3,000 of those slots were allocated for individuals from Latin American and the Caribbean. In comparison, the U.S. set aside about 10,000 refugee slots for Syrian refugees.

The new plan would expand on a previous program limited to Central American minors living in the three countries. During the height of a border crisis in 2014 and 2015, which saw an unprecedented number of unaccompanied Central American minors at the southern U.S. border, the federal government set up the Central American Minors (CAM) Refugee/Parole Program to allow some children to apply through an in-country application process. But while that program had as many as 6,000 applicants with most applications received between May and July 2015, only five children arrived in the United States during the 2015 fiscal year.

The refugee plan drew praise from congressional Democrats such as Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), and Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL), who released a statement on Thursday applauding the program.

Michelle Brane, the Director of Migrant Rights and Justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, also welcomed Kerry’s plan, saying that it represents “clear admission” that the Obama admission recognizes the current refugee crisis in Central America.

However, advocates have some concerns about the refugee resettlement program, which can only be accessed outside the United States. They’re worried that the U.S. government is using it as a way to justify its recent — and potentially ongoing — immigration operations to detain and deport Central Americans seeking other forms of humanitarian protection.

Many of the immigrants targeted in the recent raids are seeking asylum, which is a form of protection open to people who have already made the journey across the southern U.S. border. On a press call on Thursday, immigrant advocates pointed out that the refugee plan is “contradictory” to the aim of the deportation raids, which have targeted mothers and children who face similar duress to those who may qualify for refugee status.

“We can’t at the same time be reneging on our asylum obligations to those who seek protection in the US by engaging in harsh raids, invading people’s homes, incarcerating them, and sending them back to that very same violence, especially when we haven’t in many cases exercised appropriate due process and fair adjudications of their asylum claims,” Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), said on a Thursday press call. “You simply can’t treat the very same people as refugees on the one hand and as wanted fugitives on the other.”

“The U.S. must continue to be a beacon of safety and refuge for those seeking protection from persecution,” Lofgren, Lucille Roybal-Allard, and Gutiérrez said in a press statement. “This new Central American refugee program should be an expansion of our efforts to provide refuge — not a substitute for our existing asylum process.”

Immigration advocates are emphatic about the fact that the administration’s resettlement program cannot replace the current asylum process, particularly considering the fact that some immigrants may not be safe remaining in their country.

“What’s really very clear under international and domestic law is that there will always be people who need to flee immediately for various reasons,” Brane said on Thursday’s call. “Those people continue to have the right to seek asylum at our borders.”

“You’re not going to stop people from jumping out of a burning house by locking the door,” Brane noted.