Currently, there are nearly 3,000 minors fleeing violence in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras awaiting federal approval to settle in the United States. Last week, the Trump Administration extinguished that hope.
On August 16, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security cancelled the Central American Minors (CAM) program, a federal immigration option created in 2014 under the Obama Administration's guidance. This program offered U.S. entry to minors fleeing violence in Central America's "Northern Triangle," the tri-country region doused in rampant gang violence
and corruption (in just the past two years, 33,000 people have been murdered in the region). Minors were only allowed this entry, however, if they already had a parent legally residing in the U.S waiting for them. Regardless, it was a small step in the U.S. acknowledging that people fleeing Central American were actual refugees, not criminals.
Compared to the overall number of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the U.S. (nearly 60,000 in 2016 alone
), the 1,400 children who've been let in through the CAM program can seem inconsequential. But according to immigration policy experts, Trump's decision to cut the program may signal a reversal in the U.S.' newfound, cautious acceptance of Central American refugees.
"Despite its size, the cancellation of the program symbolically means a lot," said Amy Fischer, policy director with San Antonio's Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). "It means the Trump Administration is unwilling to recognize Central American kids in danger as people in need of protecting."
The news of CAM's termination came in the midst of a planned Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation
on the U.S.-Mexico border, targeting undocumented parents and guardians who allegedly paid smugglers to bring their children to the U.S. to escape violence. Some of these so-called "smugglers" arrested are the children's actual parents. ICE agents arrested at least 400 people in the sweep, which officially ended on Friday, August 18.
"If a desperate mother gets a terrified call from her daughter in Honduras who says that somebody is going to rape her or kidnap her or kill her, that mother is going to find a way to keep her daughter safe on what she knows is a dangerous journey," argued Emily Butera, senior program officer at the Women's Refugee Commission, in an interview with NPR.
She joined 300 other civil rights groups in sending a letter to Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security, urging her to stop the targeted arrests.
This crackdown isn't going to stop children from seeking refuge in the U.S., instead, it may simply force more kids to make the dangerous trek from Central America to the U.S. on their own, without any adult to assist them.
"The reality of the situation is that children are fleeing violence, and parents are doing everything they can to keep their kids alive," she said. "This is a vulnerable population in need of protection. Not punishment."