The Obama administration has approved plans to establish in-country refugee processing centers in three Central American countries that have seen an exodus of migrant children fleeing to the United States, most to escape violence, the New York Times reported. In a memorandum to the State Department circulated Tuesday, President Obama outlined plans to allocate a total of 70,000 refugee visas, setting aside 4,000 slots for all applicants from Latin America and the Caribbean. That category includes migrant children among other refugees from the region, but as the Associated Press points out, “the number is a fraction of the number of children who have already crossed the border into the United States and are awaiting deportation proceedings.” The move is aimed at deterring children in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala from crossing into the United States through Mexico, a treacherous journey that often involves the use of coyotes, or migrant smugglers.
Under the plan, lawfully present relatives in the United States can petition to have their children screened in one of the three countries to determine whether they can enter the United States as refugees or under humanitarian situations. A White House official told Reuters that the program would allow some lawfully present relatives to request U.S. refugee resettlement for children, but that “these programs will not be a pathway for children to join undocumented relatives in the United States.”
The plan came about as administration officials scrambled to figure out how to stem a border crisis — which peaked at more than 10,000 child apprehensions in June — that has overwhelmed Border Patrol agents and overfilled a processing facilities system designed to hold 6,000–8,000 individuals. The number of apprehended migrant children dropped to about 3,000 in August. In the 2014 fiscal year, about 60,000 children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have already been apprehended at the southern U.S. border. Thus far this year, about 890 unaccompanied minors have been deported, some to their deaths.
According to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention which the United States follows, people are given the refugee designation if they have a well-founded fear of being persecuted based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The U.S. determines whether migrants are refugees in deciding whether to deport them back or grant asylum. A U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report found that of 404 apprehended Central American children interviewed, a majority might qualify for international protection needs since their home countries could no longer protect them.
Immigration-restrictionist critics are concerned that the program could increase the number of migrants in the United States since people would have ease of access to the processing centers in their home countries, the New York Times reported. But breaking down the allocation, Reuters reported that the White House would set aside 4,000 refugee slots for applicants from Latin America and the Caribbean, while 2,000 slots would be allocated to people from “Cuba, Eastern Europe and the Baltics, Iraq, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.” More details have yet to emerge, but some program parameters in place that applicants must meet would likely include age and severity of circumstance requirements.
The proposal could likely appeal to some Congressional members. Earlier in July, Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced legislation that would “increase the number of refugee visas by 5,000 for each of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.” Also in July, Obama administration officials drafted plans to establish a pilot refugee processing program in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world, but no public details have unfolded since. The United States previously set up similar programs in Haiti and in Vietnam.