President Obama vowed a year ago to give Central American children fleeing violence a new, legal way into the United States by allowing them to apply for refugee status while in their own countries instead of accepting help from smugglers or resorting to a dangerous trek across Mexico.
But not a single child has entered the United States through the Central American Minors program since its establishment in December, in large part because of a slow-moving American bureaucracy that has infuriated advocates for the young children and their families.
More than 5,400 children, most of them trying to escape street gangs, extortion and sexual assault in El Salvador, have applied to join their parents, who are already in the United States legally. So far the Department of Homeland Security has interviewed only 90 of them, and lengthy procedures for getting airplane tickets and processing paperwork have delayed those whose applications were approved.
“Really, it’s pathetic that no child has come through this program,” said Lavinia Limón, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization. Pointing to administration officials, she added, “I wonder if it were their child living in the murder capital of the world, whether they would have more sense of urgency.”
In the summer of 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors surged across the United States-Mexico border after journeys that put their lives at risk or subjected them to sexual abuse from smugglers. Although the numbers crossing the southwestern border with Mexico have dropped since then, nearly 40,000 such children — most of them from Central America — still tried to cross into the United States in the year that ended on Sept. 30.
The administration’s refugee program for Central American minors was intended to reduce the incentive for children to make the trek: At the time that it was proposed a year ago, a White House spokesman called it an “orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the United States.”
Administration officials said they are still convinced that the program will become a good alternative for some of those children, although they acknowledged the delays. Mr. Obama’s advisers said approving refugees is never a fast process and is even harder in places like Central America, where the United States does not have a long-established system for processing refugee applicants.
State Department officials said the program was also slowed by the requirement of DNA tests for parents in the United States and their children in Central America before the children could be granted entry. The officials said some parents had taken a long time to have those tests performed, further extending the delays. The process also includes security checks, medical screenings, payments for airline flights, and other paperwork.
Nonetheless, Simon Henshaw, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state, said that he expected the first children in the program to be reunited with their parents in the next two weeks and that the department was preparing to interview as many as 420 more children starting this month.
Administration officials said it is important that the program not make any mistakes in who is granted entry to the United States, because political adversaries could use any failure to try to shut down the effort. They said that requires being methodical in processing applicants, even if that creates some delay.
State Department officials also said that most of the applications for the program were submitted in the last four months and that the Department of Homeland Security had already begun preparing to screen some of the children before their DNA testing and other paperwork.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Michael D. Shear