US humanitarian program for Central American children is slow moving under Biden, report finds

A humanitarian program aimed at helping Central American children reunite with family members in the United States has gotten off to a slow start under the Biden administration despite an attempt to revive the program from its Trump-era cancellation, according to a new report from the International Refugee Assistance Project.

Bottlenecks, long wait times and lack of attorney support that have plagued the program since the start have yet to be resolved, the report found.

Earlier this year, the White House touted the restart and expansion of the program as part of its strategy to address humanitarian need and promote access to legal access to immigration in the US. The Trump administration announced the termination of the program in 2017.

The Central American Minors Refugee and Parole Program (CAM program), which was relaunched in March 2021, allows certain parents and legal guardians in the US to apply to have their children or other eligible family members in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador join them in the US.

As a result of the administration’s inability to fix longstanding issues, “many eligible families are unable to even submit a CAM application and thousands are left waiting indefinitely to reunite with their families in the United States,” the report says.

The report comes as migrant encounters along the US-Mexico border have already topped 2 million so far this fiscal year and several Republican governors have taken it upon themselves to move migrants north as an act of political defiance. The CAM program was conceived during the Obama administration as a way to lessen the desire for at-risk migrant children to make a dangerous trip north.

Since March 2021, when the program was restarted, only a few hundred of the nearly 3,800 eligible families have had their cases completed, according to the report.

Those were all from applications filed before former Trump ended the program.

“At current processing rates, it will likely be more than a decade before all of those who applied between 2014 and 2017 have their cases processed,” the report concluded.

Since phase two launched, allowing new applications, IRAP is not aware of anyone who filed a new application that has been reunited with their family in the US through the program.

“It’s really positive that the Biden administration restarted this program and continues to defend it. But now it needs to make it functional,” Lacy Broemel, policy analyst at IRAP, a refugee advocacy and legal aid organization, which is supportive of the CAM program.

A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services told CNN that the Department of Homeland Security “is committed to the promotion and progress of the Central American Minors Program, and we continue to work closely with the Department of State on expanding access to the initiative.”

“CAM is just one component of the President’s multi-pronged approach to address the challenges of irregular migration throughout North and Central America, and DHS is delivering on our promise to promote safe, orderly, and humane migration from Central America through the CAM effort,” USCIS spokesperson Matthew Bourke said in a statement.

The Department of State and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.

Bottlenecks

Bottlenecks start at the very beginning of the application process, which requires one of nine resettlement agencies across the US to submit the initial application form to the Department of State — meaning parents cannot apply on their own.

Most of the time, the resettlement agencies receive no funding for the work they do on these applications due to administrative reasons. These agencies are already facing funding and staffing shortages and are unable to provide sufficient access for the number of requests they receive, according to the report, which noted that some agencies had waitlists of more than 300 to 500 persons to file an initial application.

Children waiting more than a year for a decision

IRAP says it is aware of several children who have waited approximately a year for a decision.

Delays in DNA testing and other issues have slowed the time it takes to come to a decision and reunite children with their parents.

During the first iteration of the program, close to 2,000 cases were being interviewed quarterly and the average case processing time was 331 days from the time an application was filed with the State Department to travel to the United States, according to the report. Comparable data was not available, IRAP found, partly because of the limited number of applications that have been filed and processed.

Lack of transparency about the program is one of the main concerns IRAP has heard from parents, Broemel told CNN.

For example, parents do not know when the child may be interviewed or how long they will have to wait after an interview to have their child reunited with them in the US, according to Broemel.

“There’s a very, very huge gap in terms of transparency with parents that’s causing a lot of concern, fear,” she said.

Legal help wanted

Children in Central America are not permitted to have an attorney present in their interviews with US Citizenship and Immigration Officers, which IRAP believes can lead to unfair outcomes.

The advocacy organization hopes that access to counsel could also help address some of the transparency concerns, so parents could better understand timelines and what to expect in the process, Broemel.

Broemel noted that the Biden administration has said it would like to increase access to counsel for all refugees who are going through a resettlement process.

This story has been updated with comment from the Department of Homeland Security.

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