The Departments of State and Homeland Security on Friday announced a new refugee/parole program that will grant some children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras refugee status in the United States if they have parents in the U.S. already.
The program is a response to the past year's flood of immigrant children to the United States, which saw more than 70,000 children — mostly from the three Central American countries — try to cross the border. The State Department said the refugee program is aimed in part at encouraging these children not to attempt the perilous and illegal trip.
Boys await medical appointments in a holding area where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children were processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Arizona last summer. On Friday, the Obama administration announced a new program that could allow some of these children to gain refugee status in the United States. (AP/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
State called it a "safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States."
Many Republicans said the flood of children was the direct result of the Obama administration's effort to ease immigration rules. On Friday, one Republican was already warning that the new program amounts to an approved border surge, since it will let parents in the U.S. petition for their children to be considered as legal refugees.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said the program could also be used by illegal immigrants who might benefit from President Barack Obama's pending unilateral move on immigration. Obama could announce those moves as early as next week.
"The policy announced by the Obama administration today is simply a government-sanctioned border surge," he said. "Under this abusive new policy, unlawful immigrants in the United States, once they are granted executive amnesty by the president, can now rely on the Obama administration to bring their child, and possibly their spouse, who are in Central America to our country."
"If President Obama moves forward with granting even more unlawful immigrants legal status, as he is expected to do as soon as next week, the policy announced today could open Pandora's box, allowing potentially even more people to come to the United States," Goodlatte said. "This is bad policy and undermines the integrity of our immigration system."
The State Department seemed to anticipate this argument, and defended the program by saying it is only aimed at helping at-risk children in Central America.
"The refugee/parole program will not be a pathway for undocumented parents to bring their children to the United States, but instead, the program will provide certain vulnerable, at-risk children an opportunity to be reunited with parents lawfully resident in the United States," it said.
The department said applications for the program will be initiated by parents living in the United States, and that those applications can be filed as of December. State said that if one parent lives in the U.S. and the other lives in Central America, "the second parent may be added to the child's petition and considered for refugee status."
The government also appears to be placing some limit on the number of children who can qualify for the program.
"Any child or parent admitted as a refugee will be included in the Latin America/Caribbean regional allocation of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which is 4,000 for FY 2015," State said. "If needed, there is some flexibility within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program to accommodate a higher than anticipated number from Latin America in FY 2015."
The administration hinted earlier this year that some form of application process might be used to reduce the number of unaccompanied children. Earlier on Friday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that 2,529 children were apprehended at the border in October, a 40 percent drop compared to October 2013.