Central American children are back in the news. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was up again in March, although it was still only half the figure recorded in March 2014. Parents and young children continue to be held in immigration detention centers, leading to protests like a five-day hunger strike at the Karnes, Texas, facility in early April. And Republican politicians and ultraconservative media are once again complaining that President Obama is being soft on undocumented children fleeing violence in Central America.
The right's latest target is a program the Obama administration announced last fall under which some Central American immigrant parents can apply to have children still living in their home country declared refugees and reunited with their families here. According to the US State Department, which administers the program, the goal is "to provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States."
"This is in complete violation of what the Constitution says," Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) announced on April 23 as he prepared to deliver a letter co-signed by 36 representatives demanding an end to the program. A Senate judiciary subcommittee held a hearing that day to discuss the policy, which subcommittee chair Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) claimed had "created a dangerous situation."
The legislators' concerns seem exaggerated. A State Department official told Truthout that the department had received applications from 565 immigrant parents only - 439 Salvadorans, 114 Hondurans and 12 Guatemalans - as of April 20, more than four months after the program started. No minor had been accepted at that point: US officials had yet to hold the required interviews with the children. "We anticipate that relatively few minors from Central America will be admitted before fiscal year 2015 ends in September," the State Department official said.
Problems With the Program's Launch
The program, generally referred to as the "Central American Minors In-Country Refugee Resettlement/Parole Program" ("CAM program," for short), is only open to immigrant parents from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are "lawfully present" in the United States. They may be legal permanent residents (LPRs), for example, or be covered by temporary protected status (TPS), or they may have had their deportations deferred.
The parents need to submit proof of their relation to one or more children under 21; a DNA test is required for biological parents, and legal documents for adoptive parents. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) contacts and pre-screens the children in their home countries and prepares them for their interviews with US officials. Children that the officials decide are at risk will be declared refugees and flown to the United States to be reunited with their parents, who are responsible for the cost of the flight. The government may also admit some children under "parole," which the State Department defines as "a mechanism to allow someone who is otherwise inadmissible to come to the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit."
Various reasons have been given for the low number of applicants so far: the complexity of the application process, for instance, or inadequate publicity of the program. Resettlement agencies in Los Angeles have complained that the consuls there from the three Central American countries don't seem to know much about the policy. The State Department notes that it takes time to start a new program and says its publicity efforts have included more than 20 interviews with Spanish-language media in the United States and in Central America.
One problem is simply that applications are based on the number and immigration status of the parents in this country, not on the level of danger their children face at home.
For example, the country with the largest number of endangered minors is Honduras, while the home country of the largest number of "lawfully present" parents is El Salvador. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Honduras has the world's highest annual homicide rate, with 90.4 homicides for each 100,000 residents in 2012; El Salvador's rate was less than half that. But about 41 percent of the almost 3.1 million Central Americans in the United States are Salvadorans, and many are documented - some 212,000 had TPS in 2014. Hondurans account for only 16 percent of Central Americans living in the United States.
Addressing Root Causes?
In any case, it's unlikely that a large number of Central American families will actually be reunited, however many parents apply.
The administration's proposed ceiling for refugee admissions in fiscal year 2015 is 70,000, with just 4,000 of the slots going to applicants from Latin America and the Caribbean. If history is any indication, not many of these will go to Central Americans. From 2004 to 2013, the United States resettled 38,273 Cubans as refugees, an average of nearly 4,000 a year; the number for Central Americans over the same period was 25, all from Honduras.
Even if all 4,000 slots for 2015 went to Central American minors at risk, the program would still only be addressing a part of the problem. In March 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, reported on a survey it had made of underage immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. The researchers found that "no less than 58 percent of the 404 children interviewed were forcibly displaced because they suffered or feared harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection." If we apply this 58 percent figure to the 2,031 unaccompanied Central American minors apprehended at the US border in March, we would have 1,178 potential refugees - in just one month.
This number doesn't include the "family units" detained at the border, mostly parents with young children. Figures for March don't seem to be available yet, but based on previous months, there may also be hundreds of potential refugees in this group.
Clearly, it's a step forward if even a few kids are rescued from the threat of criminal violence in Central America. But we have to wonder whether the CAM program is about saving children, or about giving the impression that the US government is finally addressing the root causes of immigration - causes which to a large extent are the result of past and present US policies.
An article by Sarah Stillman in the April 27 issue of The New Yorker conveys some of the very real anguish undocumented parents go through as they decide whether to leave their children in Central America or try to bring them across the border. Asked by email if the CAM program would be truly effective in providing a "safe, legal, and orderly alternative," a State Department official told Truthout, "Nothing is more dangerous than the journey that children have been taking, nothing." Yes, but it's also true that for many children nothing is more dangerous than staying home. The fact is that we haven't left them with many good choices.
Fact-Checking the Far Right
Ultraconservative media went wild in early April over the administration's program for reuniting Central American children with their parents in the United States. "Potentially millions of current and former illegal immigrants now have the opportunity to fly their children to the US with taxpayer dollars," the Daily Caller website announced on April 1.
Other media quickly picked up the story. The program "will fly immigrant children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to their parents in the US for free," the Unification Church's Washington Times claimed on April 4. The kids will be "picked up and flown over the border ... on the taxpayer's dime." "For free," Peter Doocy repeated at Fox News on April 5. The parents will have "their kids picked up and put on a plane, without paying a penny ... [C]ritics are concerned this new policy sets a dangerous precedent, ignoring the long line of people waiting to get into this country through more traditional immigration channels."
Actually, a very limited number of children are likely to be accepted each year, and the parents will be required to sign a promissory for the cost of the flights. The refugee program is in fact a "traditional immigration channel"; there's little evidence that Fox News has ever complained about the tens of thousands of Cubans resettled here as refugees over the past half century.
Informed of her story's errors, the Daily Caller reporter changed "potentially millions" to "an undetermined number" and mentioned the promissory note (the updated version doesn't note that it contains corrections, however). The Washington Times reporter and Fox News failed to respond to three emails each about their errors, and their articles have not been corrected. This seems like a telling comment on the intellectual level of the corporate media's so-called "immigration debate."