In mid-June 2021, the Biden administration revived an Obama-era program allowing at-risk children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to come to the United States legally under certain conditions. The Central American Minors program was created to serve as an alternative to the dangerous journey thousands of minors undertake to come to the United States.
Minors in these nations are legally allowed entry provided their parents have secured legal status in the United States. The program was effectively dismantled by the previous administration in an effort to stem humanitarian immigration efforts.
Departments of State and Homeland Security Reopen Old Applications
Back in March, the Departments of State and Homeland Security started reprocessing cases for families with closed applications. And in mid-June, they announced they were accepting new applications. That means immigrants in the United States who have a green card, Temporary Protected Status, or other forms of legal status can file on behalf of their children who are under 21 and unmarried through Central American Minors.
The Biden administration also announced a plan to expand eligibility to immigrant parents in the United States with pending asylum or U visa applications. U visas are an option for victims of serious crimes who agree to cooperate with law enforcement. Legal guardians of children in Central America are also eligible to apply through the program.
In a public statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the recent reopening of applications for children in Central America means the United States is delivering on our promise to promote safe, orderly, and humane migration from Central America through this expansion of legal pathways to seek humanitarian protection.
Numbers of Unaccompanied Minors at the Border on the Rise
Since Biden took office, the number of unaccompanied minors has skyrocketed, breaking monthly records shortly after the inauguration. In May 2021 alone, 14,000 migrant minors entered United States border custody without their parents, although according to federal officials, an estimated 80 percent of unaccompanied minors do have family members living in the United States.
This influx of immigrants is in part due to the perceived loosening of immigration policies following the change in administration.
What is a Refugee?
A refugee is someone who resides outside of the United States. They are considered to be of special humanitarian concern to this country because they have demonstrated they have experienced persecution or are in fear of persecution due to:
- Political opinion
- Membership in a particular social group
To be considered as a refugee, one must receive a referral from the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Someone with a referral can receive assistance filling out their application, but their information will never be shared with the applicant’s home country to ensure their safety.
The applicant can also include a spouse, unmarried child under 21, and other family members in some circumstances. A United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer stationed abroad interviews the applicant to determine if they meet the criteria for refugee status.
Refugees can work immediately on entering the United States and must apply for permanent residency, or a green card, within one year from the time of their arrival. They need special approval to travel abroad once they are in the United States; leaving without approval can result in them being prohibited from re-entry.
What is Asylum Status?
The terms refugee and asylum seeker are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are some differences between the two. Primarily, someone seeking refugee status starts the process outside of the United States. Someone seeking asylum, or protection from persecution in their homeland, applies in the country of their destination. Therefore, an asylum seeker arrives at or crosses a border in order to apply. They may be in fear of some of violence and persecution for the same reasons as refugees, including race, religion, and political affiliation.
Asylum seekers and asylees do not have the same rights as refugees in the United States. Unlike refugees, who can work immediately, asylees must wait 365 calendar days after completing an asylum application to apply for authorization to get a job. Generally, asylees are not entitled to government benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps. Both refugees and asylees can petition to have family members join them in the United States.
A Closer Look at the Central American Minors Program
Created in 2014, the Central American Minors program was initiated to address a wave of border crossings among children 21 and younger who were fleeing violence in their homeland. Through the program, United States-based parents file applications. After an application is submitted, the children are interviewed to assess whether their experience makes them eligible for refugee settlement based on persecution they suffered in their country of origin.
Even if a child is denied refugee status, they may still be granted humanitarian parole. Humanitarian parole allows them to remain in the United States on a temporary basis. Yet unlike refugee status, humanitarian parole is not a pathway to citizenship.
Although some immigration advocates are pleased with the change, others believe more needs to be done, specifically expanding the program to children with siblings, grandparents, and other relatives living in the United States.
Additional Measures to Promote Family Reunification
Revising the Central American Minors program is not the only step the Biden administration has taken to reunite parents and their children. In a 22-page progress report released in early June 2021, a United States interagency task force announced plans to provide relief for migrant parents to enter this country and stay for a period of up to 36 months. The primary goal is to reunite families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexican border back in 2018.
To obtain relief, each family or parent must submit an application for humanitarian relief, which must then be adjudicated by USCIS, which reviews every application to see if the applicant meets certain criteria.
Parents seeking a return to the United States must complete a criminal background check and prove they have financial resources to support themselves once they arrive. Once in the United States, approved parents with humanitarian relief can access additional services, including behavioral health screenings and treatment for behavioral health conditions to address the trauma caused by family separation.
Humanitarian relief can also be renewed once parents reach the end of the initial 36 months.
Other Possible Options for Family Reunification
In addition to the previous paths to reunification, United States immigration policies offer some additional means of bringing families back together in this country.
The I-730 process: Refugee/asylee relative petition. The I-730 refugee/asylee relative petition offers yet another path to reunification for some immigrant families. Sometimes referred to as the follow-to-join process, the I-730 is for individuals admitted to the United States under refugee or asylee status to petition for their spouse and/or unmarried children to enter the country.
Priority direct access program. The P-3 category of USRAP offers entry to individuals of designated nationalities with immediate family members, or so-called anchor relatives, who entered the country as refugees or asylees. The program is available to parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21 of the anchor family members.
To pursue reunification as a P-3 category member, the family member in the United States submits an Affidavit of Relationship (AOR) on behalf of the qualifying relative. If USCIS verifies the relationship, the application moves on to the Resettlement Support Center, where the physical case file is prepared, the applicants are educated about the process, and the initial security checks take place.
From there, the case moves on to the USCIS, which takes fingerprints and determines if the applicant is a refugee and meets all other criteria. Eventually, an approved applicant arrives in the United States, with the assistance of International Organization for Migration.
Since the Biden administration took office, swift changes to immigration policies were enacted to encourage the reuniting of families separated at the border, as well as families with one or more members currently in the United States.
But with so many programs and procedures, finding the right and legal path to entry into the United States can feel overwhelming. Anyone seeking to bring a family member to this country should contact a knowledgeable immigration lawyer familiar with recent policy changes.
Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at MC Law Group, LLC Offer Smart Legal Guidance for Families Seeking Reunification
A new administration means a new look at immigration policies and new hope for refugees separated from family. If you have questions about your own status or what steps to take to bring a family member to the United States, contact the Philadelphia immigration lawyers at MC Law Group, LLC. We believe families belong together, and we explore every legal option available to achieve safe and lawful entry for clients and their loved ones. Call us at 215-496-0690 or contact us online today to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout the tri-state area, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide.