President Trump's executive order on immigration has halted a government program that allows Central American children to seek refugee status in the United States.
More than 11,000 people have applied for the program since 2014, when former President Obama launched it in an attempt to dissuade Central Americans fleeing violence from making risky journeys to the U.S. border.
The program, which is available only to children who have a parent who is residing in the U.S. legally, and in some cases a child's adult relative, screens applicants in their home countries. Since the effort was launched, more than 2,000 people have been resettled in the U.S., either as refugees or through a process known as humanitarian parole, according to the State Department.
Trump's executive order, which he signed Friday, called for the immediate suspension of all refugee admissions to the U.S. for 120 days. Although the change affects greater numbers of migrants fleeing war-torn regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, who had been resettled in the U.S. by the tens of thousands, advocates say the order could have dangerous consequences for children and their families in countries such as El Salvador and Honduras.
“This program was an important recognition of the very real violence in these countries,” said Maureen Meyer, who advocates for migrant rights with the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. “Clearly the suspension of this program puts these children at more risk. A lot of people that are in danger could be killed.”
Trump characterized his immigration order, which also banned travel to the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries, as a measure that would “make America safe again” by protecting the U.S. from foreign threats.
But advocates say the children who have applied for the Central America refugee program pose no danger to the U.S. and would be allowed in the country only after careful screening by the Department of Homeland Security.
“The child has to go through a very extensive security vetting,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrant children. “Refugees are the most vetted immigrants in the country.”
The program came into being in 2014, a year that saw record numbers of Central Americans asking for asylum at the U.S. border. Many of them traveled without guardians, often in the company of human traffickers, and “unaccompanied minor” joined the lexicon of the immigration debate. Many of the children said they were fleeing violence and forced gang recruitment in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Faced with a mounting humanitarian crisis, Obama enacted several measures to slow the migration. He asked Congress to earmark money to help improve economic and security conditions in Central America, and he enlisted Mexico to dramatically step up deportations along its southern border.
The Central American Minors Program allowed young people to apply for refugee status from their home country. Those who faced the biggest threats were allowed to go to Costa Rica, a safer country, as they waited to find out whether their application would be approved.
At the time, some advocates argued the program didn’t go far enough because it provided protections only for children with a parent who had legal permission to be in the U.S., such as temporary protected status, which was granted in the wake of natural disasters in Honduras and El Salvador.
In 2016, the Obama administration expanded the program slightly to allow adult family members of the children to apply for refugee status as well.
A spokesman for the Department of State, which administers the program, did not say how many people were affected by the executive order or whether any Central Americans have been granted exemptions and allowed to enter the U.S.
Jaime Rivas Castillo, a professor at Don Bosco University in El Salvador, said the suspension of the refugee program means some young migrants may look for other options to leave the country.
Some may seek asylum in nearby countries such as Mexico or Panama, he said, and others may still risk the 2,000-mile journey to the U.S. border and try to enter illegally or ask for asylum there.
“If you close an important valve, another one will open,” he said.
3:08 p.m., Feb. 1: This article was updated with remarks from Jaime Rivas Castillo.