Q&A: What’s at Stake in Today’s Court Hearing about the Central American Minors Program?

Today, in federal district court in Dallas, Senior Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn will hear arguments in a case brought by the state of Texas and several other states to challenge the Biden administration’s use of parole authority in the administration of the Central American Minor’s program (CAM). The program allows certain parents in the United States to apply to have their at-risk children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras be considered for refugee status or parole so as to reunite with them safely. 

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) intervened in the case on behalf of several parents who have applied to bring their children to the United States through the program. They are now defendants in the case alongside the Biden administration. Refugees International’s Director for the Americas and Europe Yael Schacher submitted an amicus brief in the case that explains how the program fits within the history of refugee resettlement and use of parole. In this Q&A, she explains why the case matters. 

Q: What are the arguments presented by each side in the case? 

A: Texas claims CAM encourages unauthorized immigration and burdens the state with expenses for services for the program’s beneficiaries who are permitted to come to the United States through the administration’s abuse of its parole authority. The Biden administration denies that Texas has any grounds to sue the government since it cannot prove it suffers economic harm because of the program. The Biden administration also argues that CAM is designed to be an alternative to dangerous unauthorized migration by children seeking to unite with parents in the United States. A brief supporting the administration by the state of Illinois and several others argues that ending the program would be harmful to its families and economies.  

Q: Is the use of parole in the CAM program different from the way it has been used in the past? 

A: CAM has elements in common with many past parole programs. My brief points to CAM’s striking similarity to a program that existed in the 1980s for Cambodians living in danger on the Thai border who had relatives in the United States. Like CAM, that program was designed to provide a humanitarian pathway to the United States for people at risk and unite them with their family members. CAM is also similar to a program that existed in the 1990s and 2000s for people coming from the former Soviet Union with relatives in the United States who were considered for parole if they could not qualify for refugee status.  

Q: Some members of Congress have expressed interest in limiting the parole authority. Is this opposition new?    

A: Before the advent of the contemporary U.S. refugee system in 1980, the President used parole to admit refugees. In 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act, it provided that, absent a compelling reason, parole not be used for people who qualify as refugees. In the 1990s, parole continued to be used for thousands of people who did not qualify as refugees from Vietnam, for example, even as others from Vietnam were resettled as refugees. The language defining the parole authority in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (still the law of the land) – that parole be granted on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit – was devised by Senator Alan Simpson in response to the Clinton administration’s parole of Cubans in 1994 and 1995. Other bills introduced in those years were much more extreme – capping the number of parolees, prohibiting the parole of those with relatives in the United States, barring parolees from work authorization – gained few co-sponsors and little support. I would argue that today’s extreme opposition to parole began as backlash against the Obama administration’s use of executive authority for DACA and has grown since then into a manifestation of general opposition to all immigration. This lawsuit seems to be driven most of all by animus towards immigrants, not by actual injury from them.

Q: What is at stake in this case?  

A: First, Texas’s standing to sue. Right now the state of Texas (leading several other states) is trying every which way it can to challenge federal authority over immigration, including by claiming the state is being “invaded” by unauthorized immigrants. In this case, Texas is saying speculative costs for potential CAM beneficiaries—which it deems unlawful immigrants—give it grounds to challenge the federal government’s migration management policies. This suit should be seen in this broader context—as another way that Texas is trying to take the law into its own hands. 

Second, the lives and well-being of beneficiaries of CAM and other parole programs. The brief by the state of Illinois and others describes what happened after the Trump administration terminated the CAM program in 2017: a young Guatemalan unable to come to the United States through the program suffered a severe injury on a desperate journey to California to escape gang violence and unite with his father. Last year, for a report on the CAM program, I interviewed many Guatemalan parents and children who placed their hopes for the future in this program, referring to it as a “bendición.” Since then, I have also spoken to many of the people who have been able to come to the United States through the Biden administration’s other parole programs—programs that are not only humanitarian lifelines but are of great benefit to American communities.