White House

U.S. takes steps to ease asylum process for Central Americans

Immigrants and activists march in Capitol Park on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., on July 25, 2016. Protesters marched to City Hall to demand an end to deportations and the detention of mothers and children from Central America.
Immigrants and activists march in Capitol Park on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pa., on July 25, 2016. Protesters marched to City Hall to demand an end to deportations and the detention of mothers and children from Central America. AP

A White House agreement with Costa Rica to host hundreds of Central American refugee applicants is another acknowledgment by the Obama administration of the region’s humanitarian crisis, but advocates worry it may be too late to make the policies stick if a different administration – with a different focus – takes over.

Costa Rica agreed Tuesday to host up to 200 people seeking asylum in the United States while the U.S. assesses their asylum claims. The administration also will allow residents of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras apply for U.S. refugee protection while they are still in their home countries and will expand the number of people allowed to apply to the U.S. refugee program for children.

Kevin Appleby, the senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, called the steps a victory for those who have been arguing that the flow of families and unaccompanied children to the United States is a refugee situation and not just an economic one. But he and others also worried how whether the administration has enough time to implement the new program before the end of President Barack Obama’s term.

“It’s one thing to announce something. It’s another thing to follow through with implementation,” Appleby said. “It takes time to get these things properly working and implemented. There are six months left in this administration. What can they accomplish in the next six months to put in place so people have a meaningful alternative?”

Since 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children and families from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have rushed to the U.S. border fleeing violence and poverty. The wave of migrants from the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America spurred the Obama administration to launch massive deportation raids and reopen controversial family detention centers.

The matter has continued to play out in this year’s presidential election with Democrat Hillary Clinton striking a more sympathetic tone and Republican nominee Donald Trump promising to build a wall to keep migrants out.

Amy Pope, a White House deputy homeland security adviser, acknowledged that the administration’s current efforts to address the situation had been insufficient, but that these steps illustrated the administration’s commitment to protecting Central Americans at risk.

“We think these are steps in the right direction,” she told reporters on a morning news call.

It’s far from the ambitious plan announced by Secretary of State John Kerry in January to open several refugee processing centers in the region. Those plans have been held up by the lack of agreements with neighboring countries, according to people who have been apprised of talks.

Nearly 30,000 people traveling as families and 26,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the border trying to cross illegally this year.

Critics have accused the administration of ignoring the humanitarian crisis as it focused on enforcement and detention of apprehended children and parents in large family detention centers.

More than 121 people were apprehended during immigration raids over the New Year’s holiday. Advocates say the deportations have continued.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are three of the most violent countries in the world, with some of the highest rates of homicides of children and women.

The number of people seeking asylum in the United States has ballooned by a factor of eight in the past six years. Mexico, Canada, Nicaragua and Costa Rica also have seen a refugee influx, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The Americas is a region known for providing protection and solidarity to their own refugees and to many thousands of refugees from around the world,” Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told leaders this month in Costa Rica during a plea for greater protection for those fleeing the violence.

President Barack Obama has authorized spending up to $70 million to meet the “unexpected urgent refugee and migration needs related to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.”

The money is expected to be split up, with most going to Syrian refugees. But the funds could also go to resettle as many as 3,000 Central Americans referred by the UNHCR, which will help screen and determine whether migrants are eligible.

Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters Tuesday that the government is also expanding its program that allows children under 21 with at least one parent living legally in the United States to apply for refugee status.

Mayorkas said that program will now allow some unmarried siblings, parents and other caregivers to move to the U.S. with a qualifying child approved for the program.

So far only 267 have been admitted into the United States under the 2-year-old program. The government has received 9,500 applications.

In September, Obama is expected to attend a United Nations meeting on refugees and immigrants. He’s expected to call on world leaders to commit to accepting millions more refugees. But the administration has yet to say how many additional refugees the United States is willing to accept as part of the push.

The United States resettlement process has been plagued by inefficiencies, gaps and understaffing, said Eleanor Acer, director of Human Rights First's Refugee Protection program. To be effective, the program must move in a more timely fashion.

Look at what happened in the Middle East, she says.

“We talked to many people who ended up heading to Europe because they had been waiting too long to try to get resettled somewhere else,” she said. “Their families were starving and they couldn’t support themselves and they couldn’t return safely to Syria.”