The Hill: Biden’s Plan for Central American Kids is No Substitute for Asylum

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill.

On her recent trip to Guatemala and Mexico, Vice President Kamala Harris urged Central Americans to skip the journey to the U.S. border and apply for refuge from inside their home countries. She pointed to a forthcoming “resource center” that will ostensibly help refugees in the region do just this — echoing a line other senior administration officials have adopted in recent months. Instead of arriving at the southern U.S. border, as President Biden himself has asserted, Central Americans should seek forms of protection in the U.S. that are available from inside their home countries.

All of which may sound like a good idea, but there’s a catch: for the vast majority of people seeking refuge, that option simply doesn’t exist. 

To begin with, asylum refers to the ability of children and others fleeing danger to request a hearing for protection at — or within — our borders. It’s not possible to begin the U.S. asylum process from a different country.  

But Biden has one other pathway in mind. His administration is restarting the Central American Minors (CAM) program, an Obama-era initiative that allowed some refugee children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to apply in their home countries for protections in the United States. According to a recent announcement, the administration will also significantly expand the categories of people who are eligible to apply — a clear improvement over the previous version of the program. But the problem remains that — even with these reforms — the program will still leave the vast majority of Central American children at risk. 

An examination of the first iteration of the program shows both successes and flaws. While the program was a lifesaver for the families who could access it, it excluded many children with urgent protection needs. From 2014 to 2017, the CAM program admitted 3,092 children in total. (Another 2,500 were in the pipeline when former President Trump abruptly canceled the program in 2017.) In that same period, more than 166,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S. border seeking asylum. A survey at the time found that fewer than 1 percent of these children would have been eligible for CAM if they had stayed in their home countries, which means the other 99 percent might have felt they had no choice but to roll the dice on a dangerous journey to the U.S. 

The Obama administration required that CAM applications originate from parents with lawful status living in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Central American parents in the United States do not have authorized status. Some families from Honduras and El Salvador were able to qualify because both nations had received Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the past. Guatemala, however, was never granted TPS. As a result, vastly fewer Guatemalan families started CAM applications for their children, despite their urgent need for protection. While the new program may extend to some parents in unlawful status, it is not clear yet who or how many would be eligible.

Furthermore, many CAM applicants were screened out of the program, often because the officers handling their cases were unfamiliar with the specific forms of persecution Central American kids face, like gang-related violence, and how to interpret these under the existing refugee definition.

Other flaws and limitations dogged the program’s rollout. Kids had little information about the program. Many who otherwise might have applied never heard about CAM. The interview, screening and application process took place over many months and often required kids to travel great distances, increasing their visibility and the potential threats they faced from the criminal gangs and other bad actors who preyed on them. 

These are not reasons to abandon the CAM program. It is good news that the Biden administration is restarting and expanding CAM. But they must combine this with a full restoration of asylum processing at our border. To do so, the administration can start by encouraging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to end the pandemic-related asylum shutdown left over from the Trump administration (which a chorus of experts affirm does nothing to promote public health, and only serves to undermine the rights of people at risk). While unaccompanied children are currently exempted from this policy, it blocks many kids who travel with their families.

As they work to restore CAM as an additional and complementary refugee pathway, they should also take steps to improve it by increasing the pool of eligibility and making it less dangerous for children to apply. 

There are ways the administration could do this that go far beyond the expansion they recently announced (as welcome as that move was). Most critically, they should grant TPS to Guatemala and renew designations for the other Northern Triangle countries in Central America. These re-designations are long overdue, in light of devastating hurricanes that struck the region last year. The administration should also provide sufficient resources, ensure several accessible application sites and streamline application and interview procedures. They should work with local organizations throughout the United States and Central America to circulate information about CAM and better identify qualifying families. Finally, the officers administering the program should be trained to recognize the specific kinds of risks that Central American refugee children face, including persecution by gangs. 

Restarting CAM is a good idea, but it is not a substitute for access to asylum at our borders. To truly help Central American kids fleeing violence and persecution, we need multiple robust pathways to escape harm. Doing anything less would be a disservice to them — and a stain on the new administration.

Photo Caption: A Central American family is pictured in front of a shelter for migrants in the outskirts of Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 6, 2019. (Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images)