WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington will allow some children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply for refugee status from their home countries, Vice President Joe Biden announced on Friday, in a bid to stem an exodus of undocumented migrants to the U.S. border through Mexico.
The program only applies to children whose parents are legal residents of the United States. But Biden said it should provide an alternative for children making the “harrowing” journey alone from Central America in order to join their parents.
“It provides those seeking asylum a right way to come to our country, as opposed to crossing the border illegally,” Biden said at a Central American conference at the Inter-American Development Bank.
The arrival of tens of thousands of illegal migrants from the three countries - including more than 60,000 children traveling without parents - caused widespread alarm in the United States this summer, and problems for President Barack Obama as he pushed for sweeping immigration reforms.
In a speech, Biden reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to Central America, but made no promises of additional financial assistance to help curb the influx of migrants, as regional leaders have urged.
A White House proposal for an additional $300 million for Central America, which would double current U.S. commitments to the region, fell flat in Congress this summer.
Many conservative Republicans insist Washington should deal with Central American migration mainly by excluding undocumented newcomers.
But other lawmakers have been supportive of such a refugee program, saying it would offer some children a safe and legal way to leave countries struggling with poverty and some of the world’s highest murder rates.
It is unclear how much impact the plan, which begins in December, would have on the migration problem, given a 4,000-person quota for refugee applications from all of Latin America.
In a fact sheet, the State Department said there may be some flexibility with that number for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
DNA testing would be used to confirm that parents and children are related.
The program could also allow the spouse of the U.S. residents to apply for refugee status along with their children, according to the fact sheet. [1.usa.gov/1xopU32]
Editing by Tom Brown