The program, which was approved by President Obama, would allow several thousand children to legally come to the U.S. to join family members living here and is aimed at stopping a dangerous journey through Mexico that can involve violence, extortion and dangerous rides atop a train.
The rise in unaccompanied children crossing the border reached crisis level earlier this year as tens of thousands of kids from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador came to the southern border seeking refuge from violence and poverty in their home countries. Many were hoping to join relatives living legally or illegally in the U.S., driven in part by a belief that they would be allowed to stay.
The number of children peaked at 10,622 in the month of June, but dropped to 3,141 in August. Officials say the numbers could rise again as temperatures cool, although the governments of the U.S., Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been conducting messaging campaigns to spread the word that those who come to the U.S. will not be allowed to stay.
By creating an application process within Central America, the administration hopes fewer people will attempt the journey.
“We are establishing in-country refugee processing to provide a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the United States,” Shawn Turner, a spokesman for the White House, told the Times. “These programs will not be a pathway for children to join undocumented relatives in the United States.”
There are no plans to increase the overall number of refugee visas approved, although Mr. Obama said in a Tuesday State Department memorandum that 4,000 of the 70,000 overall visas should be allocated to those from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Refugees are required to prove that they are fleeing their home countries based on persecution aimed at their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group. Experts told the Times children would have to be classified as a “social group” that is endangered by the crime and violence they face at home. The exact parameters of the program are still being established.