The Obama administration on Tuesday invited thousands of new Central Americans to apply for refugee status in the U.S., creating a new path to bring not only the vulnerable children fleeing the region, but also their parents, adult siblings and even aunts, uncles, grandparents or others “related” to the kids.
Officials said they have no guess as to how many people might apply, but said it could be “significant” surge, and they said they expect it to be a “lasting” trend.
Officials also announced that Costa Rica has agreed to start accepting refugees who are deemed emergency cases that need to quickly get out of danger in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador while they await final acceptance into the U.S. or another country.
“The goal is for individuals who have legitimate humanitarian claims not to take the perilous journey and to really accept our outstretched arm of relief and proceed with those claims in a safe and orderly way,” said Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The U.S. two years ago announced a program to help vulnerable children flee the region if they have a parent already living legally in the U.S., hoping to stop them from making the dangerous journey illegally. But that program has fallen far short, with only several hundred children having been accepted so far.
Mr. Mayorkas said adding adult relatives of the children into the mix should make it more attractive to families by letting them come together.
But House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said the new program will reward those who have no right to be in the U.S.
“Today’s expansion of the Obama Administration’s policy is simply a continuation of the government-sanctioned border surge,” the Virginia Republican said. “Tens of thousands of unlawful immigrants continue to arrive at the Southwest border to benefit from the president’s lax immigration enforcement, and now many more can simply use this government-run program to come here.”
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Obama administration senses time running out on its chances to set new pathways for “favored groups” to get around immigration laws.
Expanding the existing program to adults — who, she said, should be able to fend for themselves or else come as refugees on their own merits.
“This is absurd,” she said. “No other category of legal immigrant is allowed to bring in grandparents or caregivers, and others have to wait many years and pay large fees to bring in their adult kids. Why do these folks who came illegally get to resettle their whole family? Who is paying for it?”
But immigrant rights groups said the Obama administration is trying to live up to its obligations under international standards.
“We have long argued that what is happening is a refugee emergency and should be treated like one, and these modest measures at least recognize this reality,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.
Refugees are supposed to show they are fleeing danger or persecution because they are part of a targeted class of people — though critics say the administration has stretched that definition to include victims of ordinary crime.
Administration officials said the refugees will undergo full processing, which includes an in-person interview with Homeland Security officers.
While only a few hundred refugee children have been accepted so far, the administration said more than 9,000 applications have been submitted and those are in the pipeline, with several thousands already through the interview stage.