Hundreds of Central American children are seeking to come to Long Island and other parts of the nation on a new path carved by President Barack Obama for minors "at risk of harm" in their home countries, according to a federal agency and a local resettlement group.
Children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala who prove they are fleeing danger will be placed on flights to airports where their parents will meet them. The number coming will be limited by the program's rules, as well as yearly quotas for refugees from Latin America and the Caribbean, officials said.
The Central American Minors Program is an attempt to stem the number of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the U.S. border with Mexico, an influx that had mushroomed into the tens of thousands by last spring and summer. It also is intended to lessen the practice of families paying "coyotes" to smuggle children to and across the border.
As of June, about 200 petitions had been filed under the new initiative by immigrants seeking to legally bring their children to Long Island -- mostly from El Salvador -- and another 200 were waiting to file their requests, said Carmen Maquilon, immigrant refugee services director at Catholic Charities in Amityville. The nonprofit is the only group authorized in Nassau and Suffolk counties to file those requests for admission as refugees or immigration parole recipients with the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
The U.S. Department of State, which administers the new program for minors, reported receiving 1,385 individual applications from throughout the United States as of June 8 -- 1,139 for children in El Salvador, 21 for children in Guatemala and 225 for children in Honduras. The agency did not say how many of the applications were from New York.
"It is an orderly process. The kids are given a safety mechanism to express what they are going through, and the United States is recognizing that they are not just coming for economic reasons," Maquilon said.
The "in-country" refugee and parole program was launched in December as part of the administration's multipronged response to the migration crisis. On the Island, that influx caused sudden enrollment increases in some school districts, with many students requiring special services because of limited English-speaking skills and emotional trauma from their journeys.
Candidates must be under 21 and unmarried. Biological children, stepchildren and legally adopted children may apply.
Only parents who are "lawfully present" in the United States can petition for safe passage for their children. That means the parent must be a permanent U.S. resident or a work permit-holder who has been granted either temporary protected status, immigration parole or deferred protection against deportation.
The process, which started in January with the help of nonprofits, is lengthy. Applications must be processed and requests vetted by U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials in the children's home countries. It is expected to take eight months to a year before the first visas are granted or petitions are denied, a State Department spokeswoman said.
U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), whose district includes communities where many immigrants' kids have resettled, said he is not opposed to the refugee program. But he does not want immigrants who are here illegally and protected under executive orders issued by Obama to qualify to bring their children to the United States, he said.
Challenges to Obama's orders exempting immigrants from deportation are pending in federal court. If the president's directives are upheld, some immigrants protected from deportation would be able to petition for their children to come here.
"I can support it as far as it involves those who are here with TPS," a temporary protected status for limited numbers of immigrants from countries ravaged by natural disasters, such as El Salvador and Honduras, King said. He acknowledged that it is "more of a screening process" than the government had when children illegally crossed the border on their own.
The State Department, in a statement, said the program seeks "to provide a safe and orderly opportunity for children at risk of harm with parents lawfully present in the United States to join them."
Ira Mehlman, a proponent of strict immigration enforcement, criticized it as an end-around run by the Obama administration.
The administration is trying to make it appear that the surge of unaccompanied minors is over, said Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group in Washington, D.C., that seeks reduced immigration. "One of the ways to do that is to, instead of having people cross the border, have them come into the country through some legal fashion.
"The net result is the same -- that you have lots of people coming here who would otherwise be illegal aliens, except the administration has found creative ways to bring them here," he said.
Advocates, however, said the policy is consistent with international efforts to help refugees escape danger and is a move toward more organized immigration.
"It will give the assurance so that the communities know who these kids are," Maquilon said. "They are coming with a purpose and have a reason to be here, because they were entitled to the protection from the U.S. government. We have always been a beacon of hope for the persecuted, especially when the persecuted are children."
The International Organization for Migration, which handles refugee petitions, first receives the applications and reviews them before they are considered by U.S. officials.
The children have to pass health and background checks and, in the cases of biological children and stepchildren, undergo DNA testing with their parents to prove their relationship. The children also are called for interviews with U.S. officials in their countries, where they must demonstrate that their lives are "in danger" or that they have reasons to fear for their safety, Maquilon said.
Those approved for refugee status will be helped to resettle and enroll in school in the United States, she said. They will be able to apply for permanent residency that could lead to citizenship.
Under the program's rules, minors who don't qualify as refugees may be considered for parole "for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit." But those children would only be granted authorization to attend school and work, with no promise of permanent status.
Maquilon said local communities will have a better understanding of immigrants' impact than they did with unregulated border crossings. Her organization will have quarterly meetings to notify school districts when children are coming, she said, and will inform government and social services agencies so they can prepare support services.
Unaccompanied minors coming to the United States in recent years have been fleeing impoverished areas and seeking to reunite with relatives here. Under law established by Congress to protect trafficking victims, unaccompanied children who cross the border from countries other than Mexico and Canada have to be released from detention to shelters run by the federal government and, eventually, to their relatives or sponsors.
More than 53,000 were resettled throughout the country in the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, 2014. Another 14,773 had arrived as of July 7, in the current federal fiscal year.
On Long Island, more than 3,000 of those children were resettled with relatives and sponsors in the past fiscal year, and another 518 minors have been sent to Nassau and Suffolk counties between October 2014 and May, according to federal government figures.
In seeking anti-trafficking protections, children cited violence and harassment by criminal gangs in their countries, which rank at the top of violent crime charts worldwide. Advocates said the migration surge should be treated as a refugee crisis rather than a matter of border security.
The current program falls short of those expectations because it is limited to a quota of 4,000 refugees assigned by the United States covering all of Latin America and the Caribbean for fiscal year 2015. If the spots are taken by children from Central America, they will be denied to other refugee applicants.
"It's a good alternative, but the entire approach is insufficient," said Donald M. Kerwin Jr., executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, a Manhattan think tank.
"The ceiling for refugee admissions should have been higher," he said, because people who are in peril cannot afford to wait until applications are processed and spots become available.