On a recent morning, 6-year-old Belén Martínez went to one of her favorite spots in her house in San Salvador: her aunt’s vanity, where she likes to play dress up. But instead of smiling at the mirror, she began to cry. When her aunt found her there, Belén said she had been praying to God that the coronavirus would go away. She knows the pandemic is the reason she isn’t with her dad.
Belén and her three sisters — Amy, 19; Abigail, 16; and Génesis, 8 — are stuck in El Salvador, awaiting the end of a long process that would bring them to their father, who lives in Bakersfield, California. The girls were packed and ready to go when their flight was canceled due to lockdowns in El Salvador. It wasn’t the first time their plans had been scuttled. Three years ago, they’d been about to leave when the Trump administration tried to cancel the refugee program that was their ticket out.
“We were sad because there were only a few days left and it was the same situation as before,” said Abigail. “But how were we going to know that this pandemic was going to happen?”
The sisters are among 2,700 children approved for refugee status or temporary residence through the Central American Minors, or CAM, program, which began in 2014 under the Obama administration. The program had strict parameters: Only unmarried children under the age of 21 in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — with a parent legally residing in the U.S. — were allowed to apply.
CAM was the only official migration option for children who might otherwise make the dangerous journey through Mexico to the U.S. border — and the Martínez sisters were among the lucky few who met all the requirements for it. But the lifeline thrown to them during the Obama administration has been dangled over their heads during Donald Trump’s presidency. In 2017, the administration abruptly terminated the program. In March 2019, a judge said the administration had to go through with resettlement for people like the Martínez sisters, who were already approved, though the ruling did not require that the government accept new applications for the program.
The coronavirus was another reminder to the Martínez sisters of their precarious situation. Their flight was canceled when Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele closed the airport during the pandemic. Soon after, on March 19, the U.S. stopped receiving refugee arrivals except in emergency cases.
The Trump administration has used the pandemic to ramp up a restrictive immigration agenda, effectively ending asylum at the U.S. southern border. Now, as El Salvador begins to reopen its economy, the fate of the Martínez sisters remains unclear. The International Organization for Migration, which administers CAM, says it is working to ensure swift travel for these families, but does not have an exact date. The U.S. State Department said it would “seek to resume refugee arrivals when it is safe and logistically feasible to do so.”
The uncertainty of the past few years has made it difficult for the oldest Martínez sisters to make plans. Amy graduated from high school and wants to study video game design. But she’s been hesitant to enroll in a program in El Salvador just to drop out and start over in the U.S. Abigail, 16, said goodbye to her friends in March only to find out she was not yet leaving. “For now, we don’t know if we’re going or not, so meanwhile we just have to focus on our studies,” said Abigail. Their younger sisters are anxious to move and often ask when they’ll be able to go.
The girls’ father, Manuel Martínez, has had their rooms ready at his home in Bakersfield since 2017. “Every day [without them] is a day without peace,” he said.
Martínez has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, frequently traveling to El Salvador to spend time with family. He is one of nearly 250,000 Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a reprieve from deportation which was granted to Salvadorans living in the U.S. in 2001 after a monstrous earthquake rocked their home country. The status was renewed every 18 months until the Trump administration decided to end the protection for Salvadorans in January 2018.
The Department of Homeland Security has since extended TPS for Salvadorans until January 2021, but Manuel and many others still have no pathway to citizenship. This means he has few options to bring family legally to the U.S.
“I know how difficult it is to cross illegally. Never in my life would I want my daughters to cross like that.”
Paying a coyote to bring the girls across the border could put his daughters’ physical and emotional well-being at risk, he said. “I know how difficult it is to cross illegally,” he said. “Never in my life would I want my daughters to cross like that.”
In fiscal year 2019, more than 60,000 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras crossed the U.S border. Many flee violence and have no legal route to immigrate to the U.S. from their home countries, so instead they try to reach the border and ask for asylum. CIMITRA, an NGO in El Salvador that assists CAM applicants, estimates that at least 80 percent of the minors in the program are fleeing violence. Others who aren’t fleeing an immediate threat can receive humanitarian parole, which lasts for two years.
In 2015, the Martínez girls’ mother died of lupus, and Manuel felt it was even more pressing that he be reunited with his daughters and watch them grow up. Around that time, Manuel heard about the CAM program from a distant family member. The Martínez family were part of a select few who qualified for the program.
That was by design, explained Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, a migrant rights organization with offices in the U.S and Central America. The program sounded perfect on paper, he said, but failed to address the reality of many Central American minors fleeing imminent violence by gangs, partners or family members, or state forces.
The process of applying was extremely tedious, he said. “For many people, waiting so long was impossible.” Others didn’t qualify based on the requirement that parents be legally in the U.S.
Despite its shortcomings, the program was an invaluable opportunity for Central American children like the Martínez sisters.
The four girls were finally approved for travel in 2016 after extensive interviews and medical checks. “We were really excited back then, even more than now,” said Abigail. She began to dream about her life in the U.S., what high school would be like, and how she might help her father with his trucking business one day. When the Trump administration abruptly ended the program, her planning ended too.
“It was a big blow,” she said. “All of a sudden our efforts were for nothing.”
When a judge ordered the Trump administration to resume processing applications that had already been approved, the family once more began collecting medical checks, interviews, and paperwork. But the girls were more skeptical this time. “I don’t want to get my hopes up,” said Amy in February. “We know it could happen in any moment, but we’re not as excited as we were before,” said Abigail.
Their comments proved to be prescient when their flight was canceled.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow, having to wait,” said Manuel.
Fred Ramos contributed reporting.