Frustrated by new U.S. program to take in migrants, Central American parents turn to smugglers
Jose Sorto wanted to bring his son and daughter from El Salvador to the U.S. legally. Sorto, 42, had moved to Washington, D.C., in 1998, got legal status to work in 2003 and found a job as a cook at an Italian restaurant earning about $30,000 to support his family back in the eastern port city of La Union. El Salvador has since become the homicide capital of the world, and last spring, five of Sorto’s relatives were shot and killed by gangs. Increasingly, gangs threatened Sorto’s 12-year-old son, Ernesto, and 20-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. In July, Sorto applied to a newly created program run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the State Department that in theory would allow his children to join him quickly in the U.S.
The Central American Minors program was started to stem the flow of childrencrossing the border illegally — more than 68,500 unaccompanied minors in fiscal year 2014. At the time, a White House spokesman called it an “orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the United States.”
Parents living in the U.S. legally can apply to bring their spouses with children younger than 21, who are then interviewed by USCIS officials in Central America, screened and admitted either as refugees or with temporary status, known as humanitarian parole. As of Friday, 6,892 parents and children had applied to come to the U.S. from El Salvador, 933 from Honduras and 176 from Guatemala.
When Sorto applied to the program, he was told he would have to pay to have his children’s DNA tested, which would cost about $1,000 each. He was willing to pay and awaited word on his application.
By fall, the family had grown so scared of gangs, they moved — twice, taking only what they could carry. Sorto called to inquire about their application, was told it had been lost and applied a second time in November. Then he waited some more.
Finally, late last month, Sorto did exactly what the program was designed to prevent: He paid a smuggler $9,000 to bring his wife and children north across the Rio Grande into Texas illegally.
“We needed to get out much quicker,” he said. “If they want to help people, they have to do more.”
Advocates say Sorto is not alone — that other parents frustrated by delays in the Central American Minors program are turning to smugglers. State Department officials said it takes about eight months on average to vet families but acknowledged that after more than a year, only a fraction of the 8,001 who applied came to the U.S., fewer than 200.
“As with all of our refugee programs, we are always seeking ways to streamline without sacrificing the security or integrity of the process,” said Simon Henshaw, the principal deputy assistant secretary of State.
The first group of half a dozen children admitted under the program didn’t arrive in the U.S. until November. So far, 197 parents and children have been admitted under the program, according to the State Department, a fraction of those approved by USCIS.
Once a parent applies, the State Department screens them and sends instructions to begin DNA testing, an official said. If the DNA results confirm the parent-child relationship, USCIS schedules interviews in Central America and makes recommendations to the State Department about who should be admitted as a refugee or with humanitarian parole.
The cost of DNA testing is reimbursed if the result is positive, regardless of the outcome of the interview, the official said. Those with refugee status have medical screening and flights to the U.S. paid for with a loan, but those with humanitarian parole must arrange and pay for both.
There were 113 people admitted under the program with humanitarian parole, about a fourth of the 419 approved by USCIS. An additional 84 were admitted under the program as refugees, 41% of the 205 approved by USCIS. Those with refugee status can generally pursue U.S. citizenship after five years, and those with temporary status must apply to renew it every two years and are not eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Most cases approved by USCIS (which, like Sorto’s, can include more than one child) came from El Salvador (480), followed by Honduras (102) and Guatemala (six). So far, the program has admitted parents and children to 38 states and the District of Columbia, including California. Last month, USCIS officials conducted interviews for an additional 794 cases that are still being processed. Next month, they plan to return to Central America for the next round of 1,000 interviews.
“It’s not working,” said Kevin Appleby, the Washington, D.C.-based director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies. “Because there’s a bottleneck and they’re not interviewing enough kids in a timely fashion, you’ve got backlogs. They need to put more resources into the program.”
The program is funded as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which has a budget of $9.3 million. State Department officials noted that processing for Central American Minors takes eight months on average, compared with 18 to 24 months for refugee resettlement.
Lavinia Limon, president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said she attended a meeting at the White House after the program was created and warned officials that the children’s cases needed to be handled more quickly than those of other refugees.
“They assured me everything would be expedited. Unfortunately, the reality is not consistent,” Limon said. “There’s no real sense of urgency.… Most refugees have fled to another country and are living in a camp or a city someplace. These kids remain in danger, yet the same processes are seemingly being applied.”
Like Appleby, she too has heard of parents leaving the program in favor of smugglers. “It’s sad because these parents are legally here and they’re trusting the system, and then they find that they can’t and their child is in danger. Then if they bring them here, the child is undocumented. If they want to become legal, they have to pay for lawyers and it costs the system court time,” she said.
Sorto’s wife and children turned themselves in to the Border Patrol after they crossed the Rio Grande on April 9. They are seeking asylum and were being held at Texas immigration detention centers this week. “I hope they can get out and come back to me,” Sorto said, “Because our country is too dangerous for them.”