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The US wants to help Central Americans — by letting fewer refugees in

Some Guatemalan children might be eligible to apply for refugee status from home.
Some Guatemalan children might be eligible to apply for refugee status from home.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced how many refugees will be allowed to enter the US from now until next September. The announcement included information about a new program that's supposed to make it easier for children from Central America to apply for refugee status without having to leave their home countries — instead of making a dangerous journey from Mexico to the United States, as tens of thousands of Central American children and families did this spring and summer.

But the program doesn't expand the number of refugees who'll be allowed to come from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador to the US. In fact, the US is taking in fewer Latin American refugees than it did last year. Here's what the new program will do — and what it won't.

How many refugees is the US planning to take in from Central America?

In 2014, the US allowed 5,000 refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean to come to the US. In 2015, it only plans to let in 4,000. There are 2,000 extra refugee slots that can go to any region, but with the US promising to let in more Syrian refugees than it has in the past, those extra slots will be in high demand. (Learn more about how refugee status works, and how it's different from asylum, here.)

Those 4,000 slots are going to have to be parceled out among every Latin American and Caribbean country. Historically, the overwhelming majority of refugee slots for the region have gone to Cuba. In 2013, in fact (the last year for which data's available) the US admitted 4,200 Cuban refugees, meaning the US took in more refugees from Cuba in 2013 than it plans to admit from the entire region this year.

A State Department spokesperson confirms that they're anticipating that "relatively few" refugees will come from Central America in 2015 — "the majority will still come from traditional Latin American countries, like Cuba." It's hard to imagine that more than a few hundred refugees from Central America will actually be allowed to come.

displaced women Central America

This picture is nearly 30 years old, but Central America's in the middle of another refugee crisis. (United Nations Photo)

What is the US doing to help Central American kids apply for refugee status?

The US is instituting something called "in-country processing" in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. This will allow some immigrants in those countries to apply for refugee status themselves, without leaving their home countries. (Typically, refugees have to be referred to the US government by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.)

In-country processing isn't typical, but it's not unheard of either — the US already has it for Cuba, Iraq, and a few other places.

The logic behind using in-country processing for Central American kids is that they'll be able to see whether or not they're eligible for legal status before making the dangerous journey through Mexico to the US.  That's in keeping with the administration's general attitude toward the Central American migrant crisis: the most important priority is saving people from the danger of the Mexican crossing, rather than the dangers they face in their home countries.

Who would be eligible?

To prove they're eligible for refugee status, children will have to establish they're being persecuted based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. That's the same standard that applies to people seeking asylum after they get to the US.

But that raises a concern for some advocates, who worry that the current asylum standards are too strict for children fleeing gang violence. "Even though children who are fleeing gangs and narcos should be able to qualify under the refugee definition, our system has not generally been responsive to these cases," said Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy organization for unaccompanied children in the US. But she adds that with in-country processing, the government has the ability to be "much more discretionary."

The government, though, is putting an additional restriction on which applicants will be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries: to be eligible, children have to have relatives in the US who are legal immigrants. That could apply to only a small fraction of the children who have arrived in the US so far, or might want to come in the future. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees found earlier this year that 41 percent of children who had come to the US from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador had at least one parent here — but they didn't ask whether the parents had legal status. And anecdotal reporting indicates that the majority of relatives who take custody of children after they arrive in the US are unauthorized immigrants.

Even though the number of Central American children with legal-immigrant relatives in the US isn't known, the program will surely only apply to a small fraction of the children who might be persecuted in their home countries. But even that small fraction could yield a lot of applications: when the US instituted in-country processing in Vietnam after the Vietnam War, according to Anastasia Brown of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, they had to stop accepting applications from refugees who had relatives in the US because too many of them were coming in. And some critics, including Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that opposes any increase in immigration, argue that making it easier to apply for refugee status will cause even more people to apply.

salvador relatives gang

Are applicants risking their lives by staying put as they await in-country processing?

This is a big question — and a big difference between this policy and many other times the US has offered in-country processing. Even after an application is approved, it can take months for an applicant's papers to be finalized. If the very reason people qualify for refugee status is because they fear for their lives, that's a long time to wait.

"Let's say these are kids who are at risk of gangs, and they're being followed and trailed by gangs, and they're being seen to go to the US embassy," said Karen Musalo, a law professor at the University of California-Hastings. "That raises some serious questions of 'are you asking them to expose themselves to more risk?'"

Brown, who worked with Vietnamese refugees, says that the US needs to have an emergency processing center, so applicants who are under threat can have a safe place to stay while their application is being processed. If the US doesn't do this, applicants could be in serious danger.

And if people aren't safe as they go through in-country processing, the program won't be effective. The people with legitimate asylum claims are the ones who are most likely to feel that they simply can't stay in Central America — and will choose to take the trip through Mexico anyway.

Will this work to dissuade children and families from coming to the US on their own?

It's difficult to imagine that it would have a sweeping impact.

If people continue to feel that staying in their home countries is more dangerous than making the trip through Mexico, they'll come to the US anyway. And the law is very clear that having processing for refugees in Central America doesn't mean that the US can turn away Central American asylum-seekers who arrive at the border.

Also, it's not clear how many of the children who'd want to come to the US have relatives who are legal immigrants, which is a requirement of the in-country program. And if most of the children who want to claim humanitarian status aren't eligible, they'll want to seek asylum.

It's possible that smugglers would put even more pressure on families who don't have legal-immigrant relatives in order to drum up business. After all, smugglers started targeting Central America as a market after emigration from Mexico to the US slowed — that's one of the reasons that the child-migrant crisis started to begin with.

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