Society

Obama Expands Central American Refugee Program

| by Robert Fowler
The U.S.-Mexico border fence in CaliforniaThe U.S.-Mexico border fence in California

The Obama administration unveiled new measures to broaden the Central American Minors program to address the influx of refugees fleeing mounting crime and violence in the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

On July 27, deputy Homeland Security adviser Amy Pope announced to journalists that the White House would move forward on expanding a program that allows for Central American minors with a parent living in the U.S. to be afforded refugee status. 

The new measures are a response to the influx of Central Americans fleeing their violence-torn countries for safety. Since October 2015, roughly 80,000 Central American children and family members have been caught attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Reuters.

What we have seen is that our current efforts have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims,” Pope told the press, reports The New York Times. 

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Pope added that the criteria for refugee status has been “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.”

Under the new measures, Central American siblings over the age of 21, parents and caregivers to a relative in the U.S. can now apply for refugee status. 

The Obama administration has also established a temporary agreement with Costa Rica, which will now host a maximum of 200 applicants of refugee status while the U.S. evaluates their qualifications for up to six months.

In addition, the U.S. and the United Nations will coordinate pre-screening of refugee hopefuls within their home countries, instead of carrying out the process after they have already crossed the border.

The Central American Minors program was established in December 2014. Currently, 267 minors have been granted refugee status in the U.S. while an additional 2,880 are in the process of being resettled. 

Republican Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, blasted the Obama administration for what he deemed to be executive overreach and abiding illegal immigration.

“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,” Goodlatte said in a statement.

The Republican lawmaker added that the Obama administration was “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.”

Meanwhile, director of refugee rights Bill Frelick of Human Rights Watch noted that his organization viewed the program as a meager but positive step in the right direction.

“It’s really the way the program should have been established from the start, but even belatedly we’re happy to see that this is the direction that they’re taking it,” Frelick said. 

Secretary of State John Kerry had announced that the program would be expanded in January 2016, stressing that the refugee program would not endanger national security, according to The Guardian.

“We can both maintain the highest security standards and live up to our best traditions as Americans by welcoming those in need of help to our great country,” Kerry said. 

Sources: The GuardianThe New York TimesReuters / Photo credit: Flickr

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