The administration of US President Barack Obama is considering giving refugee status to young people from Honduras as part of a plan to slow the influx of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border, White House officials said on Thursday.
The plan would involve screening youths in Honduras, one of the world’s most violent nations, to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. Similar in-country screening programs were set up in East Asia after the Vietnam War and in Haiti in the 1990s.
The officials said the proposal is among a range of ideas the White House is considering. The officials briefed reporters ahead of Obama’s meeting yesterday with Central American leaders on the condition they not be identified by name.
The UN has been pushing the US to treat children arriving at the border from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador as refugees displaced by armed conflict. The trio of nations has become one of the most violent regions in the world in recent years, with parts of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.
Since Oct. 1, more than 16,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras have been caught crossing the Mexican border illegally. At the same time, more than 30,300 Hondurans traveling as families have been arrested.
The US has resisted calling the situation a refugee crisis, though Obama and top officials have called it a “humanitarian crisis.”
The US Congress appeared to be deadlocked on reaching any solution of its own on the border crisis with a five-week recess beginning next week.
Obama’s US$3.7 billion emergency spending request looked to be going nowhere amid an impasse over whether to change a 2008 anti-trafficking law to make it easier to return the Central American children back home. Democrats reject such changes; Republicans insist on them. Republicans in the House of Representatives were to meet on the issue yesterday morning.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the refugee proposal would be welcomed by the advocacy community as long as there was no attempt by the administration to pair it to changes to the trafficking law.
“It cannot substitute for providing full asylum rights for kids who have arrived in the United States,” he said.
It is unclear what would happen to children and families who have already made the dangerous trek to the US if the refugee plan is implemented. US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has repeatedly said that there is no free pass for immigrants who come to the US illegally and that those who are caught crossing the border would be sent home.
The administration would also have to outline what the refugee proposal would mean for Honduran immigrants already in the US. In 1999, the US government granted Temporary Protective Status to Hondurans living in the country illegally in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. The status has been renewed several times since then, and according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) about 60,000 Honduran living in the US have received the protective status.
Immigrants from El Salvador received the protection in 2001, and USCIS says about 202,000 Salvadorans remain in the US under Temporary Protective Status.
Newly arriving immigrants from countries granted this status are not eligible for the protection from deportation.
TPS is used from time to time by the government to stop deportations to specific countries when authorities deem it is unsafe to return immigrants.
The New York Times first reported that the White House was considering the refugee program for young people in Honduras.
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