The State Department announced Wednesday evening the abrupt cancellation of a program that gave youth fleeing violence in Central America the chance to apply for asylum and join their families in the United States. While the Trump administration had already narrowed the scope of the Obama-era initiative and indicated it would shut it down entirely, the program is being ended with barely a 24-hour notice. Families already in the process of applying had just until midnight last night to get their paperwork filed.
The short window to finish applications “amounts to a cruel willingness to interfere” with the process, said Hans Van de Weerd of the International Rescue Committee in a statement, calling it “sabotage.”
“It’s hard to see how canceling the program directly benefits any U.S. citizen other than the president himself,” said Noah Bullock, director of the Central American human rights organization Cristosal.
The Central American Minors program, or CAM, allowed children who were fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador and had family members legally in the United States to apply for asylum from within their home country. Applicants who didn’t meet the criteria for asylum were also eligible to receive a temporary humanitarian parole that granted them permission to stay in the United States for two years.
CAM was part of the Obama administration’s response to the 2014 arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children on the southern U.S. border. It was created in an attempt to discourage families from sending their children on the perilous journey north along a route on which migrants are often killed, kidnapped, or assaulted. Most of these children were fleeing threats from gangs, organized crime, and state security forces.
While CAM was limited in scope and slow moving, Lilian Alba, who works with the refugee resettlement agency, International Institute of Los Angeles, said, “There is no question in our mind that this program saved lives.”
As of August of this year, 1,627 youth had been brought to the United States as refugees through CAM. Another 1,465 had come on temporary parole.
Alba said that the entire process had slowed to a crawl in January, when Central American organizations also noticed a freeze. Then, in August, the administration canceled the parole portion of the program. Some 2,700 children who had been approved for parole and were waiting on travel arrangements were told that their acceptance had been revoked.
In an interview in September, Alba said her office was flooded with queries from anxious parents trying to find alternatives to bring their children to safety.
“What’s even worse is that simply to participate in these programs is already putting yourself at risk,” said Joshua Leach, associate for programs, research, and advocacy at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. “You have to leave your home and go to the interview site at conspicuous times of day, you have to hire transportation, and do this repeatedly over the course of the year, drawing attention to yourself. That’s really the perversity here, of the government taking people through this process, acknowledging the danger that they’re in, and then pulling the plug.”
Especially in El Salvador, where the majority of CAM cases originated, it is very hard to hide from threats, said Rick Jones, deputy regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Catholic Relief Services.
“People move inside the country first, they try, but they exhaust their options here. These are mostly working-class and poor folks, and where they can afford to go, it’s probably a gang area,” said Jones, who is based in San Salvador. “The [gangs’] ability to track people, and their networks, has really increased.”
Vinicio Sandoval, from the Independent Monitoring Group of El Salvador, or GMIES, a rights organization that has studied CAM, said most people hid in the homes of family members while waiting for their interviews with U.S. officials. He described the case of a 17-year-old boy who was confined for months in his house because the threats he faced were so severe that he couldn’t go outside. His face lost its color, and there was a permanent indentation in the couch where he sat, day in and day out, in front of the television.
GMIES and other organizations had criticized the lack of publicity within El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala about the program from the U.S. government, even under the Obama administration. In fact, one year after CAM began, not one child had entered the U.S. under the program, the New York Times reported in 2015.
For Leach, the main limitation was that CAM addressed only a sliver of the asylum-seeking population, due to “the fact that the parents have to have status in the U.S., the fact that you are drawing attention to yourself, that it takes a long time, that if your life is in danger you need to be in hiding. In-country processing is fraught with certain dangers.”
Despite these critiques, or perhaps because of them, over time CAM greatly improved, said Sandoval in San Salvador. “It could have been better, definitely. But it established best practices, and it proved that it’s possible to find viable alternatives that offer true solutions.” And Leach’s colleague Amber Moulton said, “We had hoped for an expansion of CAM rather than rescinding or stopping it.”
Without it, the only option for persecuted youth is to flee to another country or try to reach the U.S. border and present themselves there. In the wake of CAM’s cancellation, “the wave of minors being moved through land borders will increase again, and with that, human trafficking for sexual exploitation will increase,” said Guatemalan organizer Guillermo Castillo, who lives in the U.S. and works with the group, Cooperación Migrante. For the children who remain home, it “could mean they will end up being vulnerable candidates for forced recruitment into criminal groups, or facing death if they refuse.”
In under a year, the Trump administration has taken steps to drastically reshape U.S. refugee policy in ways that would undermine long-standing protections. On top of executive orders capping refugee admissions, the Department of Homeland Security has said it will “intensify” vetting of women and children refugees. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have both sought to delegitimize the claims of asylum-seekers, saying that there is “rampant abuse,” and that people are “schooled by traffickers.” This summer, a lawsuit alleged that officers were intimidating and lying to asylum-seekers at the border.
Salvadorans and Hondurans, two of the countries eligible for CAM, may also soon face the end of temporary protected status, or TPS, which gives citizens of certain countries recovering from disasters, armed conflict, or “other extraordinary and temporary conditions” the right to stay and work in the U.S. This week, the DHS announced it would end TPS for Nicaraguans, and hundreds of thousands of Hondurans, Haitians, and Salvadorans await decisions on their countries. The two programs were interwoven, said Sandoval, as in many cases, it was family members with TPS status who were petitioning to bring their children to the United States through CAM.
“We recognize countries’ sovereign decisions to limit or amplify their own refugee programs, but given the truly grave insecurity in which a significant part of the Salvadoran population lives, of course these decisions concern us greatly,” said Gerardo Alegría, assistant ombudsman for migration and citizen security in the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of El Salvador. “Emigration from our country is forced, and what people need is the chance to find safety in other countries.”
Young people left behind in the so-called Northern Triangle, comprised of three countries with epidemic violence — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — face daily, well-documented threats from gangs for myriad reasons: for crossing through territory run by a different gang than the one in their neighborhood, even if they themselves are not gang members; for witnessing a crime or being unable to pay extortion taxes; for being confused with a gang target; for having dated a gang member or for refusing one’s advances. Some are forcibly recruited by gangs and receive threats if they refuse to join.
A zero-tolerance approach to policing gangs, inaugurated in El Salvador in 2003 and supported by the United States, has only made the situation worse. In response to iron-fist policing, the gangs ballooned, spread regionally, and grew more violent.
Zero-tolerance has also produced another danger: police and military forces that systemically abuse poor Salvadorans under the guise of fighting gangs. Children and teenagers face daily interrogation, beating, and baseless registration into the justice system and jailing. They have been framed with phantom drug and gang charges. Rampant extrajudicial assassinations and forced disappearances of young people by state security forces, a crime last prevalent during the country’s civil war, sparked the investigative outlet El Faro to compare the current police and army with the infamous, U.S.-supported National Guard that engaged in massacres, torture, and extrajudicial assassinations during the 12-year Salvadoran Civil War and that was disbanded at the conflict’s end in 1992. Another investigative news outlet, Revista Factum, has reported that the police force uses WhatsApp groups to plot and report back on torture, rape, and murder. Similar abuses of authority have been documented in Honduras and Guatemala. All three countries receive millions of dollars of U.S. security assistance for their police and military forces.
Sessions has professed his commitment to zero-tolerance policies, and analysts anticipate that the Trump administration will continue to support a militarized response to gang violence alongside the narrowing or elimination of possibilities for legal migration and asylum.
“What the U.S. is interested in is security, its own security, and not the reasons why people are migrating,” said Sindy Hernández Bonilla, a researcher on migration at Guatemala’s Rafael Landivar University.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.