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Trump administration closes door for Central American minors

The logo of the U.S. Department of Homeland

The logo of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is seen at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center in Arlington, Va., on Jan. 13, 2015. Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Saul Loeb

The federal government has eliminated a key component of a refugee program that offered hundreds of Central American minors and their relatives a chance to come to the United States legally as many fled poverty and violence in their homelands.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday announced immediate termination of the Central American Minors Parole Program, saying the agency will “no longer provide special consideration of parole for certain individuals denied refugee status in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras” through a petitioning process established in late 2014 under President Barack Obama.

The Obama administration had viewed the program and its parole provision as an alternative to uncontrolled migration of unaccompanied minors across the border.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program, said a total of 1,465 people had come to the country under the parole program as of last week — 1,110 from El Salvador, 324 from Honduras and 31 from Guatemala. Another 2,714 people had been conditionally approved, but with the government’s action Wednesday 2,444 Salvadorans, 231 Hondurans and 39 Guatemalans lost the opportunity.

The agency could not immediately provide program figures for the Long Island region, where many immigrants from those countries reside. Separately, thousands of Central American children have crossed the border illegally as unaccompanied minors and have been resettled on the Island under protections against human trafficking.

The change was criticized by immigrant and refugee advocates, who saw it as another in a series of steps by President Donald Trump’s administration to keep out refugees and other migrants.

“It’s terrible,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit in Silver Spring, Maryland, that protects refugees and has assisted Central American migrants. “The whole point of the program was to make sure that kids didn’t risk their lives to come over through the desert and break the law to reunite with their family.”

The policy reversal is part of measures included in a January executive order by Trump that called for border and immigration enforcement improvements. The order specifically instructed the federal government to tighten parole regulations, saying such entry should be extended “in all circumstances only when an individual demonstrates urgent humanitarian reasons or a significant public benefit derived from such parole.”

Part of the Central American Minors program remains in force. It allows parents considered “legally present” in the U.S. to petition for refugee protections for their unmarried children under age 21, and in some cases a child’s other parent.

The parole option that was eliminated was available to children who didn’t qualify for refugee status, often because they could not prove persecution or fear of persecution. Those granted parole were allowed to study and work in the U.S., but with no promise of permanent status.

Elimination of the legal route will leave many believing illegal entry to be their only option, some immigrant advocates said.

“What’s ending is really a program that offered an alternative,” said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead and Brentwood. “It is more evidence of President Trump’s animus toward immigrants and refugees, people needing protection.”

Proponents of strict enforcement saw the parole program as lax policy.

“It seemed like a backdoor way of getting people into the United States,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman in Washington, D.C., for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates reduced immigration levels. “The assumption is that if we don’t let you in legally, that somehow it’s OK to break the law.”

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