A humanitarian program aimed at helping Central American children reunite with family members in the United States has been slow to get off the ground under the Biden administration, though attempts have been made to revive the program after its Trump-era cancellation, one said new report of the International Project Refugee Aid.
Bottlenecks, long waits and a lack of legal support that have plagued the program since its inception have yet to be resolved, the report said.
Earlier this year, the White House touted the resumption and expansion of the program as part of its strategy to meet humanitarian needs and promote access to legal immigration into the United States. The Trump administration announced the end of the program in 2017.
Relaunched in March 2021, the Central American Minors Refugee and Parole Program (CAM program) allows certain parents and legal guardians in the United States to apply for the admission of their children or other eligible family members in Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador in the United States.
As a result of the government’s inability to address long-standing problems, “many eligible families cannot even apply for CAM, and thousands are indefinitely waiting to reunite with their families in the United States,” the report said .
The report comes as encounters with migrants along the US-Mexico border have already surpassed 2 million this fiscal year and several Republican governors have taken it upon themselves to move migrants north in an act of political defiance. The CAM program was conceived during the Obama administration to reduce the desire of vulnerable migrant children to make a dangerous journey north.
Since March 2021, when the program restarted, only a few hundred of the nearly 3,800 eligible families have had their cases closed, according to the report.
These all came from applications filed before the former Trump ended the program.
“At current processing rates, it will likely take more than a decade to process all applications from those who applied between 2014 and 2017,” the report concluded.
Since the beginning of the second phase, which allowed new applications, IRAP is not aware of anyone who has made a new application that has been reunited with their family in the US through the program.
CNN reached out to the Department of Homeland Security, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the State Department and the White House about the report.
“It’s really positive that the Biden administration has restarted this program and continues to defend it. But now it has to work,” explains Lacy Broemel, policy analyst at IRAP, a refugee advocacy and legal aid organization that supports the CAM program.
Bottlenecks start at the very beginning of the application process, which requires one in nine relocation agencies in the US to submit the initial application form to the State Department — meaning parents can’t apply themselves.
For administrative reasons, the resettlement agencies usually do not receive any funding for processing these applications. These agencies are already facing financial and staffing constraints and cannot provide adequate access for the number of applications coming in, according to the report, which finds some agencies had waiting lists of more than 300 to 500 people to submit an initial application.
IRAP says it is aware of several children who have been waiting for a decision for about a year.
Delays in DNA testing and other issues have slowed the time it takes to make a decision and reunite children with their parents.
During the first iteration of the program, nearly 2,000 cases were interviewed quarterly, and the average case processing time was 331 days from the time an application to enter the United States was made with the State Department, the report said. Comparable data was not available, IRAP noted, partly due to the limited number of applications that were submitted and processed.
A lack of transparency about the program is one of the top concerns IRAP has heard from parents, Broemel told CNN.
For example, according to Broemel, parents don’t know when the child can be interviewed or how long they have to wait after an interview before their child is reunited with them in the United States.
“There is a very, very big gap in terms of transparency with parents that is causing a lot of concern and anxiety,” she said.
Children in Central America are not allowed to have an attorney present during their interviews with US citizenship and immigration officers, which IRAP believes may lead to unfair results.
The advocacy group hopes that having access to legal counsel could also help address some of the transparency concerns, so parents can better understand the timelines and what to expect in the process, Broemel.
Broemel noted that the Biden administration has said it wants to improve access to legal counsel for all refugees in the resettlement process.