September 28, 2017—The Trump Administration has just ensured that thousands more children from Central America will make the life-threatening journey to the United States alone to seek safety from gangs and narco-traffickers.
Ending the Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program, which was the only way children in serious danger in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala could access U.S. protection from their home countries, leaves these children no other way to escape the pervasive violence from which their governments cannot or will not protect them. By destroying hope for protection for these children, the Trump Administration is fomenting desperation that could lead children into the arms of smugglers and traffickers. For all the Administration’s tough talk about combating smuggling and human trafficking, ending CAM has the opposite effect.
This, coupled with the Trump Administration’s slashing of the annual refugee admissions goal to 45,000—the lowest in U.S. history—shows the administration’s complete indifference to the most vulnerable and a complete repudiation of the values upon which this country was founded.
The U.S. government has already acknowledged that these children are in grave danger in their home country. More than 1,500 children have come to the United States as refugees since the program began in late 2014, and approximately 500 have been approved but are waiting in country for their travel documents. About 6,000 more are waiting for their cases to be decided; they have either not yet been interviewed or have not yet received a decision.
Now this administration is abandoning children to near certain harm and potentially death. This is unconscionable.
Refugee status through CAM has offered lifesaving relief to children like Yanira*and Lucia*, two sisters from El Salvador. Gang members in their country took an interest in Yanira and Lucia, and began pressuring them to become their girlfriends. The sisters knew that dating a gang member would make them sex slaves of the gang. Neither girl was friends with gang members, and both were terrified of being forced to date a gang member. When their father intervened to protect them, gang members murdered him in retribution. The girls fled to another family member’s house, but continued to receive death threats as gang members hunted for their location. Four months later, gang members threatened a cousin of the girls – demanding that the cousin disclose their location or be killed. He refused to reveal their whereabouts, and the next day he was found dead, killed by gang members making good on their threat.
The girls were on the run again. As a result of the mounting threats and danger against them, their case was expedited. Yanira and Lucia were granted refugee status and have safely resettled in the United States in the care of their mother. They, and their mother, are deeply relieved and grateful that they escaped alive.
The CAM program was a limited, but critical form of protection for an incredibly vulnerable group of children in Central America. CAM allowed children with a parent in lawful immigration status in the United States who was able to support them to apply. To be approved to come to the United States, the children had to establish that they qualified for refugee status or parole because they were in danger.
As a small and very target program, it was not susceptible to a surge in applications due to its narrowly drawn eligibility requirements and the complex process. For example, children with an undocumented parent could not benefit from the program, nor could children with relatives other than a parent or step-parent living in the United States.
Children approved for refugee status were fully vetted after going through rigorous processing and screening, which could take up to two years. They completed DNA testing to establish relationship to their parent in the United States, were interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, gone through multiple security checks, and secured passports and travel authorization letters. Parent petitioners have had their immigration status verified.
Forcing Children to Make Dangerous Journey
The U.S. government, including the Trump Administration, has repeatedly said that it is not safe for children from Central America to migrate to the United States due to myriad dangers. By cutting off the only authorized channel and leaving children no choice but to undertake this perilous journey, children in danger will now be forced to rely on smugglers and human traffickers to escape peril. The Trump Administration has targeted parents who pay human smugglers to bring their children to safety in the U.S., but by ending CAM is it providing no other way for parents to help their child escape life-threatening danger in their country.
Children who make the journey are often beaten, sexually assaulted, raped, robbed, abandoned, denied food and water, kidnapped, trafficked, exploited, and become victim to any number of other abuses and dangers. Some children die.
By slamming the door on some of the most vulnerable children in Central America, the Trump Administration is leaving them at risk of death.
El Salvador and Honduras, the countries with the greatest number of CAM, cases remain overrun by violence, and children in these countries cannot expect protection from their countries. Honduras’s homicide rate in 2016 is still dangerously high at 59 per 100,000. Levels of femicides (gender-motivated killings of women) have increased significantly in 2017. Multiple homicides or massacres have victimized children during the first six months of 2017. During the first six months of 2017, the same numbers of LGBTI individuals have already been murdered as during all of 2016. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Honduras, “impunity in Honduras is at a historical high and is a key factor contributing to violence and insecurity.” El Salvador’s homicide rate was ranked the highest in Latin America, with 81.2 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016. In El Salvador, the crimes of extortion, kidnapping and rape continue unabated. As in Honduras, the Salvadoran child protection system is rife with weaknesses, and protections for women and child survivors of domestic and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence are practically non-existent. There is a 95 percent impunity rate for these crimes.
“Child protection, regardless of where the child was born, is a fundamental value of the United States and of Americans,” said KIND President Wendy Young. “By ending CAM, the Trump Administration clearly shows its disregard for the lives of children and the most vulnerable. At the very least, the Administration should process all cases currently in the pipeline and not slam the door on those who are waiting for their cases to be adjudicated and could be eligible for U.S. protection.”
*Names changed to protect identity.
For more information, please contact Megan McKenna, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-631-9990.