After the Trump administration ended a parole program for young migrants from Central America, the head of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee expressed his disappointment.
“In terminating the parole option, the Administration has unnecessarily chosen to cut off proven and safe alternatives to irregular and dangerous migration for Central American children, including those previously approved for parole who are awaiting travel in their home countries,” Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chair of the U.S. bishops' conference's migration committee, stated Aug. 21.
The Central American Minors parole program was established in 2014, at the height of the spike of unaccompanied migrant children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America. While the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. had risen significantly beginning in the 2012 fiscal year, the number ballooned to its all-time peak of more than 50,000 in FY 2014. The number fell almost in half in the next year due to Mexico’s apprehensions of minors, but it again spiked to almost 47,000 in FY 2016.
The parole program was established with the intent of giving “at risk” children from Central America who were not granted refugee status a safe and legal avenue to the United States to reunite with their parents. Through the process, those parents lawfully present in the United States would apply for their children to be considered for parole, the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman explained in a report last year.
Children denied refugee status could also be automatically considered for the parole program. They would be vetted by U.S. security and could lawfully apply for entry into the U.S. However, the report had brought up concerns with the program, such as “lengthy processing times,” lack of protections “for particularly vulnerable qualifying children,” and “restrictive eligibility criteria.”
The program was ended last Wednesday. Children who received “conditional approval” for entry into the U.S., but had not yet made the journey, would no longer be accepted. More than 2,700 minors had won “conditional approval” to come to the U.S. but could no longer enter, the Washington Post reported.
Additionally, more than 1,400 minors living in the U.S. through the program would not see their status renewed and would have to find another legal avenue of applying for re-parole or for another immigration status to stay in the U.S., the Post reported. Minors from Central America can still apply for parole outside the program, but it “will only be issued on a case-by-case basis and only where the applicant demonstrates an urgent humanitarian or a significant public benefit reason for parole and that applicant merits a favorable exercise of discretion,” the administration announced. “Any alien may request parole to travel to the United States, but an alien does not have a right to parole.”
The program was critical in helping vulnerable young migrants fleeing violence or hardships in their home countries to reunite with their families in the U.S., Bishop Vasquez said. “Pope Francis has called on us to protect migrant children, noting that ‘among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group’,” he said.
Many came from three countries in particular – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – all of which are among the worst in the world for homicide rates. Gang violence in particular forced many young people to flee their homes for the U.S., rather than be coerced into joining gangs or be killed back home.
The journey north through Mexico to the U.S. border was a dangerous one, with harsh desert conditions, drug trafficking, and hostile smugglers all posing threats to children.
“The Church, with its global presence, learns of this violence and persecution every day, in migrant shelters and in repatriation centers. We know that children must be protected,” Bishop Vasquez said. While everything must be done to ensure the children remain at home, they must have the opportunity to move elsewhere if they have no other choice, he said. The program “provided a legal and organized way for children to migrate to the United States and reunify with families,” he said. “Terminating the parole program will neither promote safety for these children nor help our government regulate migration.”