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U.S. to Expand Central American Refugee Program

27 Jul

By Miriam Jordan

The Obama Administration announced Tuesday the expansion of programs that enable Central Americans fleeing violence to apply for refugee status, and said that Costa Rica has agreed to temporarily host some of the more vulnerable individuals before they are resettled in the U.S.

The plan is meant to address waves of migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, who have made the perilous journey over land to enter the U.S. illegally in the last two years. Once here, asylum seekers were housed in detention centers or placed with families while their cases were adjudicated.

Current efforts are “insufficient” to handle migrants who may have legitimate refugee claims, said Amy Pope, deputy Homeland Security adviser at the National Security Council.

Under the expansion plan, Department of Homeland Security officials will interview and screen most refugee applicants in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—instead of in the U.S.

Those identified as needing immediate protection will be transferred to Costa Rica while their cases are processed.

The United States will also expand a two-year-old program designed for Central American minors. The program currently allows children under 21 with at least one parent living in the U.S. legally to be considered for refugee status. Under the new terms, a sibling, caregiver or another parent of a qualifying child also can apply.

The program was established in 2014 amid a spike in unaccompanied children entering the U.S. illegally. Since then, more than 9,500 applications have been filed, said Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. But so far only several hundred children have been approved, he said.

In recent years, tens of thousands of minors and families, often mothers with children, have been apprehended at the Mexico-Texas border. Many of them are living in the U.S. while they await a court decision on their asylum claims; others remain in immigration detention centers.

Tuesday’s announcement drew criticism from Republicans who favor a crackdown on 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,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia.