The inadequacy of the In-Country Refugee/Parole Program for Central American Minors (CAM)

On December 1, 2014, a new program was announced by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) in response to the “surge” of immigrant minors at the border during the summer of 2014. The program implemented by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is now called CAM which stands for the Central American Minors Refugee/Parole Program. It is specifically designed to help minors living in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who have parents lawfully residing in the United States to escape the violence and turmoil in their native country.  It is dubbed “a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that some children are currently undertaking to the United States.” Information on who is eligible to apply for the program and a description of the process can be found at the following link: http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/refugees-asylum/refugees/country-refugeeparole-processing-minors-honduras-el-salvador-and-guatemala-central-american-minors-cam

As of April 23, 2015 the program has only received 461 applications, none of which have been adjudicated. The estimated processing time for an application is 9 months to a year. In the mean time there are no protections offered to the children awaiting adjudication. The “safe, legal, and orderly alternative” characterization of the program belies its true nature.  The reality is that these children do not have time to wait 9 to 12 months, and even to a casual observer this seems absurd. Essentially the U.S. government is saying, “You say you fear for your life because you have already been persecuted or you have a well-founded fear of future persecution? That’s nice. Please return to your scary life for 9 to 12 months while we look into that. And I’m sorry, even though speaking to U.S. government officials could expose you to even more danger, we have no protection to offer you. But thanks for applying!”

And let’s further discuss that 461 figure mentioned above. That number seems awfully low compared to the surge of thousands who came in the summer of 2014 and are still coming to our southern borders seeking refuge. It might be said that the program is inadequately publicized but the experience in our office has been that plenty of people in the Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan community are aware of the program and its benefits.

The issue comes from the lack of funding provided to the local designated resettlement agencies here in the United States who are supposed to be helping the parents here in the United States to submit their applications.  During a recent teleconference hosted by USCIS on March 31, 2015, several callers were directors or employees of these resettlement agencies stating that they cannot meet the burden placed upon them to fill out the initial application because they have no budget to support this program. We have heard this complaint from some of our own clients who state that they called 3 or 4 resettlement agencies here in the Washington, D.C. area and none of them were able to assist in filling out this application. How is this program supposed to provide the necessary relief when clients can’t even get basic access to submit their applications?

Furthermore this program has been designed to cut attorneys out of the loop so that the parents who want legal representation during the process do not have that option. The application form can only be accessed and completed with the assistance of a designated resettlement agency, which has no funding to staff someone to assist you with filling out the application. As attorneys all we can do is advise our clients on the potential strength of their children’s claim but at this point there seems to be no other avenue for us to intervene or assist.

At best this program is a loose band-aid for the current crisis at the southern border. At its worst it puts the lives of the refugees at risk because it provides no protection for those who speak to U.S. government officials in connection with these applications. We hope that Congress will heed the appeals of the immigrant advocates who recently testified before them regarding this program and will take active steps to improve it. To view the hearing please click on the following link: http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/meetings/eroding-the-law-and-diverting-taxpayer-resources-an-examination-of-the-administrations-central-american-minors-refugee/parole-program