It’s Time to Relaunch an Improved Central American Minors Program
In June, about 3,000 children and family members joined a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration over the “highly erratic and unexplained termination” of a special program that offered them conditional status in the United States. The plaintiffs all received conditional approval for the now-defunct Central American Minors (CAM) program, which offered a lifeline to certain Central American minors with lawfully-present parents in the United States. The program was launched in 2014 as a way to stem the rising flow of unaccompanied children at the Southwestern border who were seeking asylum.
As solutions to the issue of Central American migration and asylum continue to vex onlookers, thoughtful lawmakers ought to re-examine the CAM program as a narrow but successful tactic to transform some of the irregular and dangerous migration of minors into orderly, legal channels. Such a move is safer for both the minors and their families in the United States, in addition to offering more stability and certainty to immigration authorities, border agents, and the wider immigration enforcement and processing apparatus.
Life in the Northern Triangle
In 2014, tens of thousands of minors from Central America began making the dangerous journey through Mexico to reach the southwestern U.S. border. But the increase in asylum claims from that region in the last decade is not due to lax border security or a failed system of enforcement, nor is it the product of shady immigration lawyers that coach immigrants to ‘game the system’ by sticking to a preordained script. The reality is significantly more complicated in the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
The Council on Foreign Relations describes the region as having a “legacy of violence and fragile institutions” and finds the Northern Triangle countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world alongside widespread corruption, consistent political instability, and ferocious gang violence.
The decision to leave home is not trivial. The choice to travel hundreds of miles through Mexico, to pay or not pay threatening coyotes, and to risk starvation and violence must be agonizing. The rape of women and young girls is a common threat on the journey through Mexico to the United States and a number of children have disappeared. That so many undertake this perilous journey highlights how desperate asylum seekers really are — it is worth the risk to them for the chance of getting asylum.
CAM was innovative because its flexibility as a migration pathway blended multiple streams: part in-country refugee processing, part family reunification, and part humanitarian parole. Most importantly, it prioritized the safety of minors on the run, making it the type of integrated migration pathway that should be a larger part of 21st century migration.
Qualifying for CAM was difficult. The application required DNA testing to ensure the validity of the relationship with parents in the United States, interviews with U.S. officials, background checks, medical clearance, a promissory note from a parent to repay cost of travel, and more. Those approved for refugee status received resettlement assistance, help finding work or enrolling in school, and the ability to adjust to permanent residency. Those approved for parole status received a 2-year renewable status but not a pathway to residency.
In total, about 1,500 minors entered the United States under CAM. At the time of termination, another 2,700 individuals had conditional approval, but had not yet entered the country. Instead of grandfathering them in, the Trump administration rescinded their approvals — the move being challenged in the class-action lawsuit.
What Should CAM 2.0 Look Like?
We can learn a lot from the short history of CAM in order to jumpstart a new, CAM 2.0 program. In December 2016, the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman published a report making four key recommendations:
- Increase the volume of interviews to reduce the overall processing time for the program. The average processing time was 410 days for refugees and 402 days for parolees. Considering CAM utilized in-country processing, applicants continued to live in danger as they await approval. Limiting overall processing burdens — without sacrificing safety and security — should be a top priority of a CAM 2.0 program.
- Permit counsel in CAM interviews to prevent minors from having to represent themselves. Ample evidence clearly demonstrates the inability of a child—especially those with trauma—to represent themselves in immigration court.
- Create an information guide for applicants to better explain the program and the process.
- Regularly update applicants on case status so they are aware of their progress through the system.
Expedited processing for particularly vulnerable cases and for children under the age of five, reducing the time from conditional approval to travel to the United States, and providing shelters to house children during the application process would also be immensely helpful program elements.
Other ideas would help CAM and benefit the larger refugee and asylum system, like more coordination between the private sector and philanthropic community and resettlement agencies to hire staff to work on cases, an increase in immigration judges to lessen the backlog, and an increase in the regional refugee ceiling for Latin American.
In terms of procedure, CAM 2.0 should be the product of legislation, and not the rule-making process like it was done originally. Congress has passed other in-country processing programs in the past and should do so again. Legislation is more difficult to undo in the case of a less supportive administration or Congress in the future.
CAM is a Part of Larger Central American Effort
To be fair, the case for CAM 2.0 should not be overstated. Such a program provides a crucial lifeline but remains narrow; it’s not a silver bullet and won’t solve the complexities of Northern Triangle migration. But CAM plays an important role in a larger strategy needed to manage Central American migration, while offering protection to the persecuted.
As others have noted, the right approach to the exodus from the Northern Triangle is a balance between protection and prevention. Such an approach should set effective deterrents against those without legitimate claims to enter the United States; improve border security; streamline the asylum system; invest in the stability and economic security of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; and keep legal channels open and simple for those who qualify.
This would be truly an all-of-the-above approach that pairs multiple tactics together into one coherent response to maximize results. Understanding Central American migration is recognizing that much of the work has to happen in Central America. Improving the conditions of the home countries shatters the push factors that are the core reason for such an exodus.
The United States can promote the rule of law and still recognize the humanity of families and minors. We can strengthen border security while also bolstering our asylum and humanitarian migration programs. We can assist vulnerable and persecuted individuals — especially minors — without losing sovereignty. Furthermore, this humanitarian crisis is happening in our hemisphere and we have a role to play in aiding our neighbors to the south.
CAM should be reinstated because it improves migration governance and management. It not only increases the safety of the minor and the family, but it brings stability to the U.S. immigration system as well. Asylum courts are backlogged for years, overwhelmed by limited resources and a rising number of total asylum claims. The flurry of family units at any border causes onlookers to think the system is overwhelmed and that there is a lack of control on our borders. Reducing that number by shuffling special cases into more-orderly pathways lessens border crossings and reduces pressure on the backlogged asylum system. It brings some increased level of order to the overall system.
When we can manage migration flows — especially in the case of minors with U.S. parents fleeing persecution — we should seek to do so. A new and improved CAM program can accomplish just that, while saving lives and lessening the stress on our overall immigration system.