The Biden administration recently reopened the Central American Minors (CAM) program to allow minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to come to the U.S. through a parent sponsor with legal residence in the country, thereby protecting many children from making the hazardous land journey to the U.S. border. Yet, the administration intends to operate the program no differently than in its first iteration, limiting its reach. To improve CAM, the administration should prioritize safety and security by opening sponsorship eligibility to future green card holders and allowing the U.S. to process children in the country rather than in their home countries.  

The Obama administration launched CAM in December 2014 to decrease the number of unaccompanied-minor apprehensions at the border and the ability of smugglers to exploit minors. But the U.S. did not admit the first children until November 2015 — almost one year later. By the end of 2016, there was a backlog of over 10,500 applications awaiting processing. The U.S. ultimately resettled just 3,000 refugees before the Trump administration terminated the program in January 2018 and rescinded acceptances of 2,700 children.

CAM had a relatively low success rate, even considering its short duration. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) releases unaccompanied children to adult sponsors by the tens of thousands each year. ORR reunited almost 95,000 children with their sponsors from October 2015 to September 2017 (FY 2016 and 2017), whereas CAM accepted only 3 percent of this number in the two years it was actively processing cases, around the same period (November 2015-2017). 

Such low rates may be attributed to several factors, like the delayed rollout and unduly strict eligibility criteria — which are some of the shortcomings highlighted in a December 2016 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ombudsman report about the program. The Ombudsman explained that as an in-country processing program, CAM leaves children “subject to substantial risks while awaiting resolution of their cases” and found “some qualifying parents have shared that their children receive threats [from gangs] on a daily basis.”

When the Biden administration announced it would reopen CAM on March 15, 2021, the initial goal was to reprocess the 2,700 rescinded acceptances before opening applications to a more general population. While amending the errors of the Trump administration moves the program in the right direction, it addresses only the tip of the iceberg. 

The USCIS Ombudsman recommendations called for expanded and more applicant-friendly processing, in addition to upgrading safe shelter protocols during in-country processing. Making these improvements is urgently necessary, but still would only make the program adequate to the migration landscape of four years ago. Added measures are needed to further shape the program to the needs and situations of today’s potential applicants. 

The number of applications in the three years of CAM — over 10,500 — make up a small percentage of the annual numbers of unaccompanied minors released to sponsors. In other words, both the acceptance and the application rates were low. This is due to the strict criteria for U.S. residents to apply for their children to come to this country, excluding parents without legal status. Since these parents lack accessibility to CAM, their children instead must resort to dangerous means, oftentimes with the use of smugglers, to arrive at the border to claim asylum. 

This could be avoided if eligibility for CAM sponsorship is expanded to immigrants who will become documented, thus opening up safer travel options for the children they want to bring. The country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants have a chance to become citizens if President Biden’s immigration bill, currently under congressional review, passes. The bill’s provisions will allow for them to apply for Lawful Permanent Residence (LPR) — more commonly referred to as green cards. While these families wait for legislative change, however, their children continue to face imminent danger. This country must allow for these minors to join their family in the U.S. as soon as possible.

Opening eligibility to future LPR holders can also help relieve some of the unaccompanied minor arrivals to the southern border and the diminishing capacity for such children at detention centers. Instead of addressing this shortcoming and expanding its processing capacity, the current administration is turning to Mexican authorities to detain incoming unaccompanied minors and return them home. This subjects children to additional violence and insecurity by imprisoning them for legally seeking asylum and preventing them from reuniting with family members already living in the U.S.

Furthermore, the USCIS Ombudsman report suggests that we expedite cases for vulnerable children, and a safe shelter program should be in place to protect applicants better. When CAM was first in operation, children had to attend interviews at government offices in their home countries during their application process. The repeated travel to and from these centers garnered unwanted attention from local gangs, heightening these children’s danger. 

Processing children within the U.S. parental sponsor custody is the safer option. Sponsors would register a child and meet at the nearest airport or the southern border. Upon registration, a child would receive special documents to travel legally and more securely — like directly flying from their home country to the U.S. — and avoid the use of smugglers. While plane tickets may be expensive — so is smuggling; the thousands of dollars wired to smugglers can instead be spent towards safer travel options for children. Once in the U.S., having family members present will help put these children at ease during expedited processing. This way, the children would not need to be held at processing centers — thus increasing efficiency and efficacy for processing officers — and could join their sponsors as soon as possible. 

Under the Biden administration, we have a second chance to improve the CAM program by expanding sponsor eligibility and processing applicants in-country.

Photo by Charlein Gracia on Unsplash