Broward County

Few undocumented minors apply for refugee or humanitarian visas

An 8 year-old Salvadorian immigrant  watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed illegally into the United States.
An 8 year-old Salvadorian immigrant watches as a U.S. Border Patrol agent records family information on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed illegally into the United States. Getty Images

Few families have applied for refugee or humanitarian visas for children whose parents want them to be relocated to the United States because of increasing gang violence in three Central American countries, according to a new report.

“A total of 3,344 applications had been submitted as of mid-August,” according to the newly-released report from Washington-based Migration Policy Institute (MPI). “Participation in the CAM [Central American Minors] program during its first months has been modest.”

The limited response has been surprising given the surge of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras at the Mexican border last year.

In fiscal year 2014, almost 69,000 unaccompanied Central American minors were detained along the border, up from 39,000 in fiscal year 2013 and 24,000 in fiscal year 2012.

The program was put in place by President Barack Obama’s administration in December to deter the large and disorderly flow in unaccompanied children.

According to the MPI report, so far only 59 visa requests have been filed for Guatemalan minors, 426 for Hondurans and 2,859 for Salvadoran children.

The MPI report suggests that the response has not matched by expectations because of at least three factors.

One is that visas are limited only for children whose parents are legally authorized to live and work in the United States. Such a restriction potentially excludes a large share of applicants since many parents whose children are in Central America have no legal status in the United States, the report says.

Another reason may be rooted in the complex procedures for filing a visa petition. A third problem may arise from the lengthy processing times for the visas that could take months to complete.

“For a host of reasons,” the report says, “refugee processing has become an increasingly drawn-out procedure that involves multiple interviews, security and medical clearances, and DNA testing to validate family relationships.”

The report notes that generally, processing of a refugee visa takes anywhere from six months to a year.

Francisco Portillo, a Miami-based immigrant rights activist, says that in his view the main reason the program has drawn modest interest is because few people know about it, partly because U.S. immigration authorities have failed to publicize it properly.

“There has not been enough information or promotion about the program,” said Portillo, president of the Francisco Morazán Honduran Organization.

Portillo’s group has been in the forefront assisting thousands of Central American families whose children arrived at the border without their parents last year.

Unless the Central America program is streamlined, it may fail to stem the flow of unauthorized minors at the Mexican border, the report says.

“Absent such reforms and structural changes in the conditions that underlie migration dynamics, unaccompanied minors will continue to arrive at the border seeking safety and secure futures,” according to the MPI report.

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