New York Times
By Julie Hirschfeld Davis
July 26, 2016
The White House on Tuesday announced a substantial expansion of a program to admit Central American refugees to the United States, conceding that its efforts to protect migrants fleeing dangerous conditions had left too many people with no recourse.
The administration said it would broaden an initiative that currently lets unaccompanied Central American children enter the United States as refugees, allowing their entire families to qualify, including siblings older than 21, parents and other relatives who act as caregivers.
It is unclear how many refugees might be eligible, but during its two years, the program for children has drawn 9,500 applicants, which could eventually grow to many times that with the broader criteria.
The expansion was denounced by Republicans, and it sharpened a contrast with Donald J. Trump, who has centered much of his presidential campaign on a call to shut out immigrants.
Republicans said the Obama administration should be focused on tackling what they called a border crisis. The expansion would instead essentially open an entirely new channel for Central American families escaping endemic violence to gain legal entrance to the United States.
“What we have seen is that our current efforts to date have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims, and there are insufficient pathways for those people to present their claims,” Amy Pope, a deputy Homeland Security adviser, said in a conference call to announce the changes. She said the revisions showed a recognition that “the criteria is too narrow to meet the categories of people who we believe would qualify under our refugee laws, but they just don’t have the mechanism to apply.”
The White House also said it had reached an agreement with Costa Rica to serve as a temporary host site for the most vulnerable migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras while they wait to be processed as refugees. These migrants would first undergo security screening in their home countries. Costa Rica would accept up to 200 people at a time among those who are found to be eligible, for periods of six months.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees has agreed to set up an unusual process to review requests from potential refugees while they are in their home countries. Administration officials also said they would begin reviewing applications from refugees in their home countries, a step they hoped would discourage people from making the dangerous trip to the United States border.
Republicans said the expansion was the latest example of the White House’s misuse of its authority.
“Once again, the Obama administration has decided to blow wide open any small discretion it has in order to reward individuals who have no lawful presence in the United States with the ability to bring their family members here,” Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “Rather than take the steps necessary to end the ongoing crisis at the border, the Obama administration perpetuates it by abusing a legal tool meant to be used sparingly to bring people to the United States and instead applying it to the masses in Central America.”
In making the revisions, President Obama was bowing to years of complaints from advocates for immigrants who have argued that he has turned a blind eye to the plight of refugees at the southern border. They complained that he has instead focused on deterring migrants from coming to the United States and deporting them if they do, even as he has expanded his effort to welcome people fleeing violence and persecution elsewhere, including those displaced by Syria’s civil war.
The situation in Central America “is heartbreaking and it’s distressing, and that is why the president had not been satisfied with the steps that we’d been taking,” said Eric Schultz, the deputy White House press secretary. “That’s why we have been able to expand some of these programs.”
Ángel Herrera, the coordinator for the pastoral care of migrants in the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, said the news that the United States would open its doors to more refugees was welcome.
“Violence has overwhelmed all limits,” said Mr. Herrera, speaking by telephone from one of the region’s most murderous cities. “The insecurity is tremendous. People see no other option than to emigrate.”
The American program, he said, has not had much success because the process is slow and people do not understand it. But the church has begun to organize workshops to explain the program and guide people through it.
The Obama administration has grappled with how to respond to an influx of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which spiked in 2014 with the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied children streaming over the border in South Texas. The administration has tried to address the root causes of the migration by allocating $750 million in foreign aid to Central America and pledging to set up new programs to extend humanitarian protection to those who need it.
But its primary response to date has been to try to discourage migrants from making the journey to the United States or entrusting their children to smugglers. The administration has also accelerated the deportation of newly arrived migrants — most of them held briefly in detention centers before being released to pursue asylum claims in immigration courts, often with no assistance from lawyers — if they are not granted asylum.
Only 600 people from Central America have entered the United States as refugees since the influx began, officials said, including 267 children under the program created for minors with parents living in the United States who are citizens or legal immigrants. The pace is increasing, however, with 2,880 minors approved to live in the United States. Now, that program will be further broadened to family members of such children.
People in the program will be screened to see if they meet the stringent requirements for refugee status, showing that they have been forced to flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality or political persuasion.
But people who do not meet the requirements could be offered an entry permission known as parole, according to a senior administration official. That status does not open a pathway to citizenship, but it allows migrants to enter legally to join family members in the United States. Many of the children admitted to the program have been paroled, the official said.
“It shows the administration now recognizes this is primarily a refugee flow, not an economic one,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies in New York.
Advocates called the changes a long overdue step that moved the administration in the right direction after years of mismanaging the Central American crisis.
“We have long argued that what is happening is a refugee emergency and should be treated like one, and these modest measures at least recognize this reality,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group.
But he said the administration must do much more, including affording migrants who arrive in the United States “full and fair proceedings.”
“The administration has relied on an enforcement-centric approach that sends vulnerable young people back to countries where they may well face death,” Mr. Sharry said. “Instead, we need to respond to this humanitarian emergency with a comprehensive refugee-centric strategy.”
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