The Biden administration is restarting a program that allows certain Central American minors to seek entry into the US from their home country as officials deal with an uptick in unaccompanied immigrant children crossing the southern border, officials announced Wednesday.
The Central American Minors program, which started during the Obama administration and was later scrapped by former president Donald Trump, allowed parents who were from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — and who had legal status in the US — to seek approval for their children to also be allowed in on a two-year basis that could be renewed.
“This program provides a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the risks incurred in the attempt to migrate to the United States irregularly,” the State Department said in a statement. “The U.S. southern border remains closed to irregular migration, and we reiterate our warning that people not attempt that dangerous journey.”
The program began in 2014 when the Obama administration faced a surge of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border. Administration officials wanted to provide them with an alternative and to dissuade those considering making the dangerous journey to the US–Mexico border.
The number of children in Border Patrol custody has grown rapidly in recent weeks, jumping from 500 in early February to more than 2,000 at the beginning of March. The more than 8,000 unaccompanied children now in US custody in shelters across the country has become the latest challenge for President Joe Biden’s efforts to undo immigration policies set by his predecessor.
Roberta Jacobson, the southern border coordinator at the White House, said that they were trying to convey to Central Americans that the US would have legal processes in the future and that they were standing those up as soon as possible, but warned that they should not come now because it's too dangerous.
Jacobson said the administration was focused on the root causes of migration, including increasing aid to the region that is targeted.
The surges in migration, she added, are in response to four years of “pent-up demand” and that the idea of a more “humane policy” may have driven people to make the decision to come to the southern border.
She added that smugglers are also spreading disinformation as to what is possible.
“The border is not open,” she said.
The Central American Minors program restart will begin in two phases, officials said. The first will process those with eligible applications that were stopped in 2017 after Trump closed the program. The second will start accepting new applications. State Department officials said they would contact parents as soon as next week.
“During the life of the program, we have reunified nearly 5,000 children safely and securely with their families,” the State Department said in its statement. “The program reflects our values as a nation and represents our continued commitment to ensure that our immigration system treats people with dignity and respect and protects the most vulnerable, especially children.”
While the Biden administration continues to turn back most immigrants at the southern border under a Trump-era order that cited protecting against the coronavirus, unaccompanied children have been the exception.
Unaccompanied children from Central America who are picked up by Border Patrol agents are generally sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are housed in shelters across the country as they begin officially applying for asylum and wait to be reunited with family members in the US. But in recent weeks, officials have been strapped in finding quick access to these beds, leading to a backup in Border Patrol custody, where they are staying longer than the government-mandated limit of 72 hours.
On Monday, border officials had requested more than 500 immigrant children be referred to ORR shelters. That number is a 40% increase when compared to February. ORR recently expanded its shelter capacity after restricting it as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.