The Obama administration substantially expanded its Central American refugee program last week by making entire families eligible for approval, expanding refugee processing in Central America and offering immediate protection for some in Costa Rica.
This will not put an end to the border crisis caused by the dramatic increase in migrants seeking shelter from gang violence in Central America, but the administration deserves credit for acknowledging that more needs to be done.
For years, the administration has been under pressure from Congress and the public to devise a program that can deal with the crisis in a way that meets the often conflicting goals of living up to this country’s humanitarian values while keeping our borders from being overrun.
This is a tall order, particularly in an election year in which immigration is a hot-button issue. It is important to declare plainly that the “expansion” is no open door for new waves of migrants. It will be limited, administration officials say, to those who have legitimate claims of asylum because of the violence they face in their home countries and communities.
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Under the new program, the administration hopes to persuade potential migrants not to undertake the perilous journey to the United States and, instead, take advantage of new resources for processing refugee and asylum claims in their own countries — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. More U.S. officials will be based in those countries to review claims.
A second part of the program offers those found to be at imminent risk an opportunity to move into a refugee camp being established in nearby Costa Rica under the auspices of the United Nations. Its capacity will be limited to 200 individuals needing immediate protection for a period of no more than six months. That’s far less than the expected demand, but far better than the complete absence of any comparable emergency shelter in the region at the present time.
A third element of the expansion involves a broadening of the Central American Minors program, which aims to help underage at-risk migrants The expanded program allows families who would otherwise be separated to become eligible for asylum.
The most welcome aspect of the program consists of the reassurance that the administration remains committed to finding a way to tackle immigration in a safe and responsible manner despite criticism from all sides that it is either doing too much (deportations) or not enough (by failing to protect the border, or turning back migrants who deserve to have their asylum claims heard).
The expansion announced last week cannot possibly accommodate all those individuals in Central America, young and old, who are desperate to flee, but it creates priorities and speeds up the review of legitimate claims. It also undermines the activities of “coyotes” who charge exorbitant fees for smuggling migrants across the border.
Clearly, even more needs to be done, especially in helping Mexico, the transit country for migrants moving north. Mexico needs help to establish its own asylum standards and evaluating claims for those who want to remain there. It also needs help to create resettlement facilities.
In a visit to the White House last month, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said Mexico would step up its program to aid migrants.
Realistically, however, it cannot do so without U.S. help.