The Obama administration is expanding a U.S. refugee program for "vulnerable" Central American families in an effort to stem the tide of people fleeing the region's gang violence, senior officials announced on Tuesday.
New refugee and asylum officers are being hired at U.S. embassies in the region to screen applicants, and Costa Rica has agreed to create a temporary “sanctuary” to house up to 200 people in urgent need of protection, the officials told a conference call with reporters.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto also agreed last week during a meeting at the White House to increase his country’s capacity to accept Central American refugees, the officials said.
“Our current efforts to date have been insufficient to address the number of people who may have legitimate refugee claims,” said Amy Pope, Deputy Homeland Security Advisor.
Under the changes the government is broadening a program to allow some Central American children to reunite with parents living legally in the United States. The program will now accept in-country applications from the siblings, parents or caregivers - such as aunts, uncles or grandparents - in an effort to preserve family unity.
Since the Central American minors program was created in late 2014 some 9,300 applications have been received, Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters. So far only 257 refugees have been admitted, but the program is expected to grow in the coming months, Mayorkas said.
A total of 6,800 applicants have already been screened under the minors program and 2,884 cases were approved for resettlement in the United States. “We are expanding significantly,” said Mayorkas. “These programs take time to build traction,” he added.
The measures are part of an existing $750 million foreign assistance program to tackle a two-year-old humanitarian crisis that has seen thousands of Central Americans, including many unaccompanied minors, fleeing their homes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Obama administration has come under attack for failing to respond sufficiently to the epidemic of gang violence sweeping Central America that has disrupted the lives of many families, prompting thousands to flee.
The new measures are likely to be well received by immigration advocates who have long complained that existing rules end up divding families with disastrous economic and psychological consequences. But they could attract the ire of Republicans, including presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“The goal is for individuals who have legitimate humanitarian claims not to take the perilous journey and really accept our outstretched arms of relief,” said Mayorkas. Embassy consular staff would be beefed up with additional adjudicating officers to process the claims. “We are building our capacity in the region … we have surge resources to address this need,” said Mayorkas.
Officials said they have no clear idea how many refugees may eventually be admitted into the United States but “we are very confident that thousands will benefit from these programs,” said Amy Pope, deputy Homeland Security advisor.
Despite efforts to create an orderly process for migration from Central America, the wave of families trying to flee across the border remains high, while detentions of undocumented immigrants facing deportation has also risen.
Since the start of the budget year in October, more than 51,100 people traveling as families and more than 43,000 unaccompanied children have been caught illegally crossing the Mexican border. The number of such immigrants has been steadily rising this year after significant decreases between the 2014 and 2015 budget years, the Associated Press reported.
U.S. officials have said the number of apprehensions of both children and families "are consistent with seasonal patterns" and insisted that despite a rise in May, numbers "remain well below historical highs seen in 2014" when 68,541 unaccompanied minors and 68,445 families were detained.
In Mexico during the first four months of this year, authorities deported nine out of every 10 detained Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran migrants, according to a Univision analysis of Mexican interior ministry figures. During that period, a total of 43,506 nationals from the three nations were returned by Mexico to their home countries.
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world with 103 murders a year per 100,000 inhabitants. Honduras has recorded 90 murders per 100,000 inhabitants per year.
The Salvadoran violence stems largely from a war between two street gangs, the "18th Street" and the "Mara Salvatrucha." In 2012, the government negotiated an peace deal between the two gangs with the help of the Catholic Church, but it broke down last year and violence returned.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this article