Trump Closed a Little-Known Door for Family Reunification, Leaving Refugees Stranded

Andrea Castillo, Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2018

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The so-called Central American Minors program was created in late 2014 in response to a surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in the region. The program was billed as a safe alternative to a dangerous journey north through Mexico. It allowed immigrants who were lawfully present in the U.S. to apply for refugee status or humanitarian parole on behalf of their children under age 21, as well as their own spouses and grandchildren living in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.

The program failed to stem the flow of unaccompanied children. But it worked as a way to reunite some families.

Doris Meissner — who led the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000 and now serves as director of the U.S. immigration policy program at the Migration Policy Institute — said that “the CAM program, as modest as it was, was always an effort to create a safer way of coming to the United States for people who actually had an eligibility to come.”

“Cutting that off simply worsens what it is [the Trump administration] say that they’re trying to deter.”

S.A. is one of six plaintiff families in a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this month in California against the administration over the termination of the refugee program.

The lawsuit alleges that the government secretly ended the program days after Trump took office in January 2017 but didn’t publicly announce the decision until that August, violating their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.

Lawyers say U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did this despite continuing to accept funds from applicants, including $400 for DNA tests, $100 or more for medical exams and $1,400 for each child’s plane ticket. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the International Refugee Assistance Project, the citizenship agency released emails showing that it had canceled more than 2,000 CAM interviews scheduled beginning in January.

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When the program ended, more than 2,700 young people had their conditional approvals to relocate to the U.S. rescinded, according to the complaint.

All had left the Northern Triangle, the area in Central America made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The three countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world due to rampant corruption, drug trafficking and gang activity.

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Other plaintiffs include a teenage girl who was forced to drop out of high school a few months short of her graduation because an MS-13 gang member was trying to forcibly “date” her and she feared she could be raped or killed; a teen boy beaten so badly after refusing to join MS-13 that he required surgery and now uses a cane to walk; and another teen boy whose uncle was shot and killed by MS-13 outside the boy’s home.

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During the time that the program existed, more than 15,000 people applied, according to the State Department. More than 2,100 were resettled as refugees, the government said, meaning they could apply for legal residency after one year. Another 1,500 were allowed in the U.S. as parolees, permitted to remain only as long as their work permits remain active.

One such case involves Andrea, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman who arrived two years ago as a parolee to reunite with her mother after nearly two decades apart. Andrea’s work permit expired last month, leaving her and her 4-year-old son Mateo without legal protection.

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Andrea, who asked that The Times not reveal her last name out of concern that she could be deported, now works full time cleaning a hotel. In March, she got married and is preparing to file for legal residency through her husband.

According to the complaint over the CAM program’s ending, some parents took out loans to pay for plane tickets, sometimes with only days notice from migration authorities. Some paid hundreds of dollars to safely transport their children from their hometowns to attend numerous interviews in the capital cities of each country.

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