The Obama administration announced Tuesday that it is expanding a program that helps Central American refugees, including minors, reunite with their families in the United States. The effort is designed to discourage people from leaving their homeland and flooding the southern U.S. border, say administration officials.
The program has three components.
First, it broadens the categories of people eligible to enter the U.S. to include siblings over the age of 21, parents of qualified children and other "caregivers" when they accompany an unmarried minor child.
Second, with the assistance of a United Nations agency, the U.S. will screen applicants in their country of origin when they apply for refugee status.
Third, the government of Costa Rica has agreed to temporarily host up to 200 migrants who are in the greatest need of protection. Administration officials called this a "Protective Transfer Arrangement."
At its core, the new effort signals an acknowledgement by the Obama administration that its program to stem the tide of families and children leaving Central America hasn't worked. The administration currently allows Central American minors to apply to join a parent who has legal status in the U.S.
"Our current efforts to date have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims," said Amy Pope, White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser.
"There are insufficient pathways for those people to present their claims for adjudication," said Pope, adding that the changes announced Tuesday will help ensure "a safe and orderly processing" of asylum claims.
But administration officials said they don't know how many people could be eligible for refugee status under the expanded program. Thus far, they said, approximately 9,500 minors have applied to leave Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. According to Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of Homeland Security, 2,880 minors have been approved to reunite with their families in the U.S. and more than 600 already have arrived.
The number of Central American minors crossing the border surged in 2014, eased off in much of 2015, but resumed thereafter. According to The Associated Press, since October 2015, more than 43,000 unaccompanied children have been caught crossing the border.