Politics & Government

Obama to allow Central American children apply for refugee status

It didn’t get much attention but this week President Barack Obama used his authority to implement a plan to allow thousands of children apply for refugee status, which could allow some to legally join family members in the United States.

In a memorandum to the State Department, Obama said people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador could be considered refugees for the purpose of admission to the United States. He said that of the 70,000 refugee visas 4,000 should be allocated to people from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The program is designed to discourage families from sending children alone on the long, dangerous journey across Mexico into the United States.

Advocacy groups praised the decision, though they want to see more details about how the processing would work.

“We welcome President Obama’s plan to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the growing number children arriving in the U.S. as they flee violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” said Barbara Weinstein, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. “The president’s plan would provide in-country processing of refugee applications in an effort to discourage children from making the dangerous trip from their home countries to the U.S.”

The Obama administration abandoned its aggressive months-long search this summer for emergency shelters across the nation after the number of children illegally crossing the southern border alone dropped.

The number of unaccompanied children traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, most through the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, surged this year. But officials say the influx slowed likely because of many factors, including the weather, a media campaign urging parents not to send their children to the U.S. and the arrest of some bringing children over the border.

Advocacy groups that work with immigrants cautioned that there is always a dip in the numbers during hot summer months and that they could spike again.

Earlier this week, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded $4.2 million in grants to organizations -- the Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants -- to provide post-release legal services.