The Obama administration is initiating a program to give refugee status to some young people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Under the program, immigrants from those countries who are lawfully in the United States will be able to request that child relatives still in those three countries be resettled in the United States as refugees. The program would establish in-country processing to screen the young people to determine if they qualify to join relatives in the U.S.
In a memorandum to the State Department Tuesday, President Barack Obama allocated 4,000 slots for refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean for next year. The number is a fraction of the number of children who have already crossed the border into the United States and are awaiting deportation proceedings.
The program would not provide a path for minors to join relatives illegally in the United States, and would not apply to minors who have entered the country illegally.
Instead, it aims to set up an orderly alternative for dealing with young people who otherwise might embark on a dangerous journey to join their families in the United States.
The program is not likely to stop other minors or migrant families from seeking to cross the border.
Last month, Border Patrol agents apprehended 3,129 young people, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Since the start of the budget year in October, more than 66,000 unaccompanied children have apprehended crossing the border illegally, nearly double the number from the 2013 budget year.
That number has been declining but remains a worry for the administration as Obama considers ways to remove the threat of deportation and grant work permits potentially to several million immigrants already illegally in the U.S.
Under the plan, the U.S. would process refugee requests for youths in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Similar in-country screening programs were set up in East Asia after the Vietnam War and in Haiti in the 1990s.
The plan was included in a White House memo to the State Department setting a total 2015 allocation of 70,000 refugees from Africa, East Asia, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and the Near East and South Asia. In addition to specifying El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the memorandum also singled out Cuba, Iraq, Eurasia and the Baltics as locations where the United States could screen individuals for potential refugee status.
The United Nations has pushed the U.S. to treat children arriving at the southern border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as refugees displaced by armed conflict. Growing control by drug traffickers and street gangs has made the three-country region one of the most violent regions in the world in recent years.