Last month, at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) outlined a new approach to address the border crisis that would expand refugee processing in the home countries of Central Americans seeking humanitarian protection. Senator Portman argued processing refugees in their home country would prevent some from taking the dangerous journey north and would ease the burden on immigration officials and systems at the border.

In-country refugee processing out of the Northern Triangle could play a role in easing the border crisis, but it must be a legitimate option for asylum seekers in Central America. In recent years, the U.S. has resettled very few refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—the so-called “Northern Triangle Countries” (NTC)—and resettled just 307 individuals this fiscal year. With three months left in the fiscal year, the U.S. has resettled just 46 refugees from Honduras, 62 from Guatemala, and 199 from El Salvador. 

In his remarks, Senator Portman acknowledged the idea would require the Trump administration to raise the overall cap on refugees, and specifically increase the cap for Latin American countries. For fiscal year 2019, the Latin America and the Caribbean region has a 3,000 person ceiling on refugee admissions from the region, of which we have resettled 16 percent. Latin America and the Caribbean make up just 2.3 percent of overall refugee resettlement in America this year.

Favorable asylum decisions for NTC applicants and refugee admissions from the same three countries have bifurcated significantly in 2016, reflective of a general increase in displacement in the region due to increased violence, and a simultaneous lowering of the regional refugee cap. 

From 2014 to 2016, the refugee cap for Latin America dropped 65 percent. Although it was temporarily raised in 2017, it was lowered again in 2018 to one of the lowest levels in the history of U.S. refugee resettlement from Latin America, and the total of refugees actually resettled in 2017 remained far below the cap. This suggests that despite evidence of widespread violence in the region, both the Obama and Trump administrations have opted to forgo increased opportunities for refugee resettlement.

To attend to this population of migrants, the United States should expand collaborative operations with the UNHCR in the Northern Triangle, who currently have one office in each NTC and eight others throughout Latin America. This would not be unprecedented; the limited-scope Protection Transfer Agreement (PTA) with Costa Rica allows for 200 refugee applications to the U.S. to be processed there. 

While refugee admissions from NTC would substitute some of the irregular migration patterns the U.S. encounters now, it’s still only one component of a more comprehensive border management strategy. Additionally, for refugees who are unable to stay in their home countries because of targeted violence, in-country processing is not a viable option. 

Note: Alexander Voisine, Niskanen immigration policy intern, co-authored this post. 

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