Jose Sorto wanted to bring his son and daughter from El Salvador to the U.S. legally.
Sorto, 42, had moved to Washington 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 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 have threatened Sorto's 12-year-old son, Ernesto, and his daughter, Jocelyn, 20.
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 United States.
The Central American Minors program was started to stem the flow of children crossing 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 under age 21, who are then interviewed by U.S. immigration services officials in Central America, screened and admitted either as refugees or with temporary status, known as humanitarian parole. As of mid-April, 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, last month, Sorto did exactly what the program was designed to prevent: He paid a smuggler $9,000 to bring his wife and children 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: 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, among the 8,001 who applied, fewer than 200 came to the U.S.
"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 youths 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.
Once a parent applies, the State Department screens him or her and sends instructions to begin DNA testing, an official said. If the DNA results confirm the parent-child relationship, the immigration services agency 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.
There were 113 people admitted under the program with humanitarian parole, about one-fourth of the 419 approved by the immigration services agency. An additional 84 were admitted under the program as refugees, 41% of the 205 approved by the agency. Those with refugee status can generally pursue U.S. citizenship after five years, while those with temporary status must apply to renew it every two years and are not eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Most cases approved by the immigration services agency came from El Salvador (480), followed by Honduras (102) and Guatemala (six).
Last month, agency officials conducted interviews in 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-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."
State Department officials noted that processing for the Central American Minors program is much quicker than for refugee resettlement, which takes 18 to 24 months.
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.
Like Appleby, she has heard of parents leaving the program in favor of smugglers. Her agency was notified that at least a dozen have had to cancel interviews for the program because they had already been smuggled into the U.S.
"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," 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 entered Texas immigration detention centers last week.
"I hope they can get out and come back to me," Sorto said, "because our country is too dangerous for them."
For news from the Southwest, follow @mollyhf on Twitter.