Calls in U.S. Congress for refugee status for Central American kids

WASHINGTON Fri Jun 27, 2014 4:02pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some leading members of the U.S. Congress are calling on the Obama administration to consider launching an emergency refugee program for Central American children as one way to address a rapidly escalating humanitarian crisis at the southern border with Mexico.

Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are showing up illegally, often without any parents or relatives, at the Texas border. Their numbers could reach 90,000 this year and grow to 150,000 next year - up from only about 6,000 in 2011, according to government estimates.

After making the dangerous journey with the help of human and drug traffickers who prey upon them, this rush of children and teenagers are straining U.S. resources, from temporary shelters to immigration courts.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, told Reuters on Thursday that establishing refugee application programs in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where domestic abuse, gang violence and poverty are rampant, is the "key" to defusing the growing U.S. border crisis.

McCain and other members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - say that a refugee program could help discourage minors from making the perilous journey north alone. At the same time, it would give some of them a legal way to flee the three nations, which rank among the top five countries with the highest murder rates in the world.

Many of the children are trying to reunite with relatives already in the United States, some of them here illegally.

It also would dovetail with the urgent message President Barack Obama and his top aides are now telegraphing throughout Central America: that "unaccompanied minors" should not expect to be welcomed into the United States if they arrive illegally.

If Obama were to opt for a refugee program, he likely would use his own authority to create it, according to experts, rather than rely on legislation from Congress. Under such a plan, children could go to U.S. embassy offices in their home countries and apply for refugee status.

White House officials would not comment on the next steps it might take. Instead, they recounted measures recently announced to deal with the surge of illegally immigrating children.

Those include $40 million to improve Guatemalan border security and $25 million to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are vulnerable to organized crime pressures.

Many immigration experts do not believe those steps, even when coupled with a public relations campaign urging kids to stay at home, will stop the flow. Long-term U.S. foreign economic aid and anti-drug programs in these countries might be needed, they have said.


The United States has a history of taking in refugees fleeing difficult situations, from Haitians and Cubans running from domestic upheavals and Vietnamese fleeing after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to Kosovars, Iraqis and Afghanis seeking refuge from wars more recently.

"I think it's something we need to discuss," said Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California. "You don't need legislation to do that." Lofgren is the senior Democrat on a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.

She added that she was "surprised" that a Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee, which has deep partisan divides, approached her this week wanting to talk to her about a refugee program for children from the three Central American countries.

Like Lofgren, Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, a leading advocate of revamping U.S. immigration laws, said in an interview that he wants to look further into a refugee program before fully embracing it.

But, he added, "I think it would stem the tide" of illegal immigrant children while also giving them a quick, legal avenue to safer environments.

As the White House weighs its options, it likely is considering political blowback from conservative Republicans in Congress who already are blaming Obama for creating the crisis at the border by easing some immigration policies.

"I wouldn't do that," warned Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, when asked about a refugee assistance program. "The more they come, the more will come. There will be hundreds of thousands," he added.

And then there is a raft of technical issues related to launching an emergency refugee program.

"Some sort of in-country or regional processing (of refugee children) is one of the suggestions we have been making," said Kristen Aster, associate director of the Refugee Council USA.

She said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees could get involved in the coordination, given that children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras might have to flee their native countries quickly and travel to a neighboring one once they apply for refugee status. The United States or other Central American countries could be their final destinations.

Other specialists including Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, worry that if Obama were to impose a tight overall cap on the number of refugees, it could leave many deserving children ineligible.

Doing so, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned in a report last November, "could ensure their demise."

Meanwhile, Congress is clamoring for some sort of action.

"The journey from Guatemala to the United States has got to be hell on Earth for some of these kids," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in an interview.

Saying he has an open mind to a refugee program, Graham added, "We'd be able to make a more intelligent decision about what's legitimate and you wouldn't have the problem of people showing up, dropped off at the door (border). That makes sense to me."

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Comments (84)
TheNewWorld wrote:
I am conflicted on this. Giving them refugee status is not going to stop the influx of children. Can you really state that we will allow children to have refugee status and actively seek to separate them from their parents? Of course not, so you have to give refugee status to all of the people in those countries. So we allow them to come to America, and grant them refugee status. Fair enough as long as they do it in a way that allows us to screen them for immunizations and criminal records like the normal immigration process, and we will have to limit immigration elsewhere to balance economic needs. My conflict is that they are not going to do any limitations elsewhere, and it is going to further increase the number of children from other countries being sent across the border to anchor a spot for their other family members in hopes that if you send enough, they will declare refugee status for my country too.

Jun 28, 2014 2:40am EDT  --  Report as abuse
davidfarrar wrote:
Just another word for AMNESTY.

ex animo

Jun 28, 2014 3:28pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
EmilioG wrote:
Not our burden to bear. Their fate is not our cross to bear. Hundreds of thousands of illegal minors are not America’s responsibility. Yes they may have born unto hard lives but our schools and our towns and states should not have to support these youths. Mayors and Governors in america should not have to be stressing out over budgets and aid costs to help fund and provide for these children and that is exactly what will happen. The feds will not think about the well being of American cities and towns and just expect them to pick up the tab for their needs. B.S. that is wrong and no matter how much pity you have for these kids, Americans are struggling as it is to keep its own people’s children safe and educated. I am surprised more governors and mayors are not pulling together and telling the government to back off and keep these kids out. Now Obama is asking for 2 billion dollars more in “humanitarian” aid money directed at this issue. 2 billion! How about we just stop advertising for them to come like we seem to be doing all the time. Heck I read somewhere that the feds are actually taking bids to hire someone to help get all these kids safely over here. That’s just wrong. If people want to help these kids then move to their country and help them there. Help women find birth control, get your wealthy friends to donate money to set up private schools that are safe. YOU go there and take your pity with you.

Jun 28, 2014 10:31pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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