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Obama Had A Plan For Central America. Then Came Trump.

The plan involved aid to Central America and a program to screen vulnerable children there. Trump not only reduced the aid, he killed part of the screening program.

Last updated on June 29, 2018, at 10:15 a.m. ET

Posted on June 29, 2018, at 9:01 a.m. ET

Asylum seeking children from Mexico and Central America line up for breakfast at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico.
Guillermo Arias / AFP / Getty Images

Asylum seeking children from Mexico and Central America line up for breakfast at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, Mexico.

The Trump administration, beset by thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence in their homeland, last year eliminated a program that was intended to screen would-be asylum-seekers in their home countries — a plan that was meant to avoid the chaos that has been unfolding for the past three months on the US's southern border.

An extension of the program, which the Obama administration established in conjunction with the UN refugee agency, still exists in Costa Rica, where people judged to be at immediate risk are housed while awaiting asylum in the United States and elsewhere. The Trump administration provided funding for that part of the program as recently as April.

But funding for the larger program — the one that was meant to feed into the Costa Rica portion — was cut in August, after being frozen in February 2017 as part of Trump’s efforts to more closely control immigration.

You went from an administration that was very intent on being forward-leaning on these issues to an administration that could not be more hostile,” said Ronald Newman, who was director of human rights and refugee protection on the National Security Council in the Obama administration. (It's uncertain how the Trump administration fulfills that role now; when asked, an NSC spokesperson replied, "The current National Security Council coordinates policy development on human rights and refugee protections through the work of two directorates staffed by subject matter experts with decades of experience across multiple disciplines.")

The program, when it existed, was the humanitarian arm of a multi-pronged approach that emerged when the Obama administration was faced with a Central American refugee crisis of its own. Its elimination underscores the differences between the way Obama approached an intractable immigration problem and the way the Trump administration has decided to deal with it. Vice President Mike Pence, in his visit with the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries on Thursday, merely told them to stem migration flows.

In 2014, the number of unaccompanied children and families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras suddenly surged on the southern border. Obama immigration officials responded by expanding detention centers and trying to overturn a court settlement that dictated how long they could hold children — steps similar to how the Trump administration has responded.

But the Obama administration also determined that it needed to confront the problem at the source — that is, in the three countries from which most of the unaccompanied children were coming: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The program it settled on included providing funding to Mexico to better police its own southern border, asking for an emergency economic aid package from Congress for the three countries, and undertaking a media campaign encouraging people from those countries not to make the dangerous journey across Mexico to the United States.

It also set up a program to screen people seeking asylum before they set off on their journey. That became known as the Central American Minors program. Parents, lawfully present in the United States, filled out an “affidavit of relationship,” Form DS-7699, through one of the agencies that resettle refugees with funding from the State Department.

The State Department then forwarded the application to a UN-affiliated office in the country of the child. That office then pre-screened the child and arranged a DNA test to confirm the biological relationship between the child and the petitioning parent. US Citizenship and Immigration Services then interviewed the child. Then came security and medical checks and then, finally, resettlement.

In El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, “We started up that program and processed thousands of kids and parolees,” Newman said. In July 2016, 9,500 people had applied to the program; when the program was halted, 1,800 refugees and parolees (a status with a lower level of protection) had been admitted to the United States.

The Obama administration later created an extension of that program, realizing that for many children the risk was too urgent for them to wait for all those procedures to be completed. That part of the program was set up in Costa Rica in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration, an international organization that advises governments on migration issues. Under this program, especially vulnerable children could, after pre-screening, be moved to a camp in Costa Rica for the rest of the process.

The Costa Rica program was not free from criticism. The program, piloted with Salvadoran applicants, was designed to house 200 people for six months at a time. By November 2017, it had apparently relocated only one Salvadoran family, amid reports that its bureaucracy undercut the program’s very purpose. UNHCR and IOM both referred requests for comment to each other, with UNHCR eventually declining to respond on the record or on background.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration continues to fund the Costa Rica program, which, by January of this year, resettled approximately 180 people not just in the United States but also Australia, Uruguay, and Canada, according to a report from the UNHCR.

Australia’s agreement to take in Central American refugees came after Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull attended Obama’s summit on refugees in September 2016 — an irony, given that the US agreement to take in refugees from Australian detention centers was the subject of an acrimonious exchange between Trump and Turnbull just days after Trump took office.

“Virtually every high-level conversation [Obama had] involved some pitch to his counterpart to be more generous in welcoming refugees,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was South America director on the National Security Council in the Obama White House.

In April of this year, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migrants provided $1.75 million to support the Costa Rica program, even though what Newman called the “principle feeder” to that program has been stopped.

While Trump rails against Mexico for letting migrants through and Pence is expected to demand that the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras stop migration from their countries, there appears to be little thought to duplicate the Obama effort to confront the problem in Central America.

“The Trump administration fundamentally doesn’t believe in foreign assistance. It wasn’t a great fit for them to get behind a program of carrots and sticks,” said Dan Erikson, who served as special adviser on Western Hemisphere affairs to Vice President Joe Biden. “They prefer the all-stick approach.”

Indeed, Trump has threatened to cut funding completely to the three Central American countries, which collectively are known as the Northern Triangle. For the current budget year, the Trump administration requested only $460 million in aid for the three countries, far less than the $700 million the Obama administration had provided in its final federal budget and an amount so low that Congress increased it to $615 million.

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