The Obama administration quietly announced a program late last week to create a legal channel for thousands of Central American children to come to the U.S., a move designed to prevent a repeat of this summer’s illegal immigrant surge but which Republicans said amounted to “border sabotage.”
Coupled with President Obama’s expected action in the next few weeks granting tentative legal status to illegal immigrants already in the U.S., the policy could open the door to illegal immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala petitioning to have their children still in their home countries join them in the U.S. as refugees.
“The president cannot continue to claim he cares about border security when he only has an appetite for border sabotage,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican.
The announcement is designed to apply to the same kinds of children who surged across the border over the summer, fleeing bad economic conditions and some gang violence and hoping to reunite with families, including parents or siblings already in the U.S. illegally.
Immigration agencies were overwhelmed by 60,000 children who were caught along the border. They eventually were brought into the interior and, for the most part, placed with relatives living in the U.S.
Numbers released Friday show the surge peaked in May and June and dropped last month to below the October 2013 total.
All told, 2,529 unaccompanied minor children and 2,163 families traveling together were caught at the border last month.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection didn’t respond to questions about the drop, but Republicans predicted that the administration’s latest proposal would result in another surge.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden announced the program in a meeting in Washington with the leaders of the three Central American nations. Mr. Obama was in Asia.
According to the State Department, which will run the program with the Homeland Security Department, the goal is to prevent Central American children from making the same harrowing journey in which many are raped, robbed, abused and occasionally die along the way.
“This program will allow certain parents who are lawfully present in the United States to request access to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for their children still in one of these three countries,” the State Department said. “Children who are found ineligible for refugee admission but still at risk of harm may be considered for parole on a case-by-case basis.”
The department insisted that the program “will not be a pathway for undocumented parents to bring their children to the United States.”
Republicans scoffed at that assurance, and indeed, an initial reading suggests that many illegal immigrant parents would benefit — particularly if Mr. Obama follows through with his pledge to grant “deferred action,” or a stay of deportation, to millions of illegal immigrant parents this year.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says those on deferred action status are deemed to be “lawfully present,” which would make them eligible for the Central American child refugee program.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, called the program “simply a government-sanctioned border surge.”
“Under this abusive new policy, unlawful immigrants in the United States, once they are granted executive amnesty by the president, can now rely on the Obama administration to bring their child, and possibly their spouse, who are in Central America to our country,” he said.
Mr. Obama already has halted deportations for most illegal immigrants by setting priorities that leave most of them unlikely to be ousted.
But activists say that still leaves them in the shadows, unable to work. They have asked him to expand his 2012 program for so-called dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
About 600,000 of those dreamers have been granted deferred action, which includes tentative legal status and work permits.
Activists say Mr. Obama could grant as many as 7 million other illegal immigrants similar status this year.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, told ABC’s “This Week” program that even if Mr. Obama acts, it will take months before processing to start, and he said that should be the spark congressional Republicans need to pass a broader bill dealing with the issue.
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said Mr. Obama “wants a fight” in order to corner Republicans.
“I think he’s actually trying to bait us into doing some of these extreme things, as has been suggested. I don’t think we will,” he told ABC.
He said Republicans likely will take up the immigration issue but break it into pieces, rather than pass the broad deal Mr. Obama wants.